- This blog was kindly authored for HEPI by Dr Paul Greatrix, Registrar at the University of Nottingham.
- This blog, the first of two parts, is an abridged version shortlisted for the AHUA Jonathan Nicholls prize. https://www.ahua.ac.uk/meet-the-shortlist-of-the-dr-jonathan-nicholls-essay-prize-competition/ . The article represents the personal views of the author.
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” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ladok) 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.