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Setting the Record Straight: the Case for a National Student Administration Management System – PART ONE

  • 24 August 2023
  • By Paul Greatrix


It is proposed that a national student record system be selected, procured and deployed in every higher education institution in the UK thereby delivering significant benefit to all institutions, students and staff and resulting in substantial financial savings and major reductions in organisational pain.

The Case for a New National Student Administration Management System

Every higher education institution has to have a student record system. Every institution buys, installs, develops and maintains its own at significant cost, not just financial but also in terms of people, change impact and significant distraction from core education and research activities.

The innovation proposed here is for the selection and deployment over time of a national student record system in every higher education institution in the UK. The impact of this will be transformative and bring huge benefits to institutions and all the people who work in them as well as streamlining regulatory and reporting requirements. Implementation will not be wholly straightforward but will be no more complicated or challenging than the status quo over the next decade – and significantly cheaper.

There are only a handful of providers of student record systems and one dominant provider in the UK. By establishing a national student record system, the government would take huge amounts of cost out of the higher education system and remove significant pain from HEIs and their staff. This will be a huge win.

Moving in the Right Direction

So there are many millions of pounds to be saved by introducing a national system, but how would it work? First, the government would invite tenders from those student record system providers and would go through a transparent national procurement process which would involve key stakeholders from the sector. Then, it would issue an instruction to require universities to move towards the national student record system which we will call SAMS, the national Student Administration Management System, for the sake of argument.

SAMS would then become the default target operating system for all HEIs. Over time institutions would be expected to migrate towards it as their existing contracts with their current providers ended. Instead of looking to procure a new system, they would simply begin to prepare for and implement SAMS. The transition and implementation costs will be lower than for a new system, given that the specification would be standard and there would be minimal scope for customization and adaptation. This, as many institutions have experienced, is where things often go awry with IT systems implementations.

There is much anecdotal evidence of HEIs being challenged as they sought to introduce new IT systems. Student record systems are particularly problematic because they often attempt to achieve the impossible: to adapt regular, rigid and structured systems to very complicated and messy processes and structures. Whilst the data is not readily available, we can nevertheless be reasonably confident that at some point, almost every HEI will have experienced significant issues with deploying a new IT system.

Getting the Basics Right

A functioning student record system is a core operating requirement of every HEI, a bit like plumbing, electricity or WiFi. They need to work consistently and deliver the fundamentals, effectively and efficiently. It really is about doing the basics and doing them right. One of the consistent failings of HEI IT systems implementations is the efforts made to adapt and bend systems to meet the many quirks, unusual variations and diverse course structures that institutions offer. The cost of these customizations is huge both in terms of investments, but also the costs required to maintain and implement updates to those systems. All of this would disappear with SAMS.

Following the Swedish Example

Can it be done? Yes, and there is at least one country which has proved that this is possible: the shining example of the success of such a model is the Swedish higher education system, where there is a national student record system, known as Ladok (“Ladok” abbreviates the Swedish “Lokalt adb–baserat dokumentationssystem” which has been adopted by all Swedish universities. With Ladok, students can register for courses, look at the credits they’ve accumulated, print verified transcripts and certificates, adjust all their contact details, and share outcomes and records with selected recipients including employers. If a similar system operated in the UK, it would remove a huge amount of pain and cost from HEI operations.

Making it Happen

How then would we go about implementing SAMS, the UK’s version of Ladok?  Having procured and asked that HEIs plan for migration towards it, there would still be a significant persuasion or perhaps regulation task to be undertaken to ensure institutions come on board. There will inevitably be a reluctance on the part of HEIs to participate in such a national system but given the cost savings involved for everyone and the benefits for students and the sector overall there really are no arguments worth mounting against this proposition. Of course, nationalisation is something that has been inimical to governments since the late 1970s but we are now entering a new era where solution-oriented proposals have to be first on the list rather than ideologically driven approaches. Instead, governments should recognise that there are huge efficiencies and savings to be made. Indeed there are many other significant benefits for everyone involved: staff, students, alumni, employers and anyone with an interest in higher education, not to mention the taxpayer.

For many years HEIs have, wrongly, imagined that there was some kind of strategic advantage to be had by having the first and best student record system. The reality is that there is very little to be gained by having something slightly fancier than another institution. Fundamentally, this is about getting the plumbing right for higher education. This is no longer the kind of thing we should all be doing independently but rather HEIs and government should collaborate to deliver something which works for everyone. SAMS will get the basics done and then each HEI can focus instead on the important stuff like educating our students and undertaking world-changing research and knowledge exchange.

In Part 2 of this blog we will look at some of the many benefits a national student record system would deliver.

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  1. Paul Woodgates says:

    Excellent proposal, Paul. It really is long past time this should happen. And I completely agree that the competitiion between universities created by the marketised system should be no blocker – no student applicant ever picked a university based on which one had the best student records system!

    But I question why you assume this needs to be a government sponsored initiative. Why can the sector not do this for itself – in its interests rather than in political/regulatory/bureaucratic interests? If UUK were to lead it, could not SAMS be sector owned like UCAS, Advance HE or QAA? Of course, it would require some up-front investment, but if a small number of institutions which were at the point of buying a new system agreed to pool their budgets instead, they could become the “founder investors” of SAMS, whereby they would have their investment gradually reimbursed from the subscriptions of later members as they join. Once the founder investors have their investment back, everyone would just pay a subscription based on number of students to cover running costs and future upgrades. I would think a model of that kind could work – as you say the potential rewards are huge!

  2. Dan Perry says:

    Yes to the article and yes to the response from Paul. There is inevitably considerable complexity in unpicking the customisation and ‘we’re different’ aspects that appear in most universities. Clarity on business processes and initial scope would be key, but the (sector owned) service could be created by a relatively small group and expanded. Pump-primed and subscription would be ideal.

    I’ve pitched to Jisc on several occasions that we should feed student records into a shared warehouse and Jisc should run a single HESA interface, thus liberating each university from the current approach and initiative.

  3. Gavin Moodie says:

    Having a single student records system for all a countries’ universities seems logical, but I fear will encounter serious obstacles.

    Australia tried such a development in the early 2000s, I think, but ended up 3 families of systems, each sponsored by a big software vendor. These systems fragmented after a few years.

    The difficulties of getting all universities to adopt the same system are illustrated by considering why universities don’t adopt the ‘vanilla’ systems sold by vendors, but buy customisations for each institution and often for each faculty.

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