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Setting the Record Straight: the advantages and costs of a National Student Administration Management System – PART TWO

  • 25 August 2023
  • By Paul Greatrix


The first part of this blog set out the proposition for a national student record system to be selected, procured and deployed in every UK HEI resulting in substantial financial savings and major reductions in organisational pain. Following the example of Sweden’s national student record system, called Ladok, the UK would move towards the implementation of a new system known as SAMS, the national Student Administration Management System.

A Catalogue of Benefits

So what are the advantages of SAMS? These are many and varied, number many more than those listed below and bring benefits for all parts of the system, students, staff, institutions themselves and the sector in general.

  1. Reporting: government has been seeking for some time to get more up-to-date data reporting out of HEIs to help its understanding of the sector position. Every institution struggles for months to compile an accurate return: Data Futures, the long-running project to enhance reporting, is still going. SAMS will significantly reduce those reporting challenges and arguments and it will be much easier for every HEI rapidly to provide the statistical returns required by the Higher Education Statistics Agency.
  2. Consistent Data Management: With a national student record management system in place, universities and colleges (subject to data privacy rules of course) will all have access to centralised and up-to-date information about each student, reducing the need for manual data entry and minimising the risk of errors.
  3. Improved Tracking of Student Progress: SAMS will enable HEIs more effectively to monitor student progress and achievement throughout their academic careers, including credits accumulated, grades and qualification completions. The planned implementation of unique learner numbers, as partially implemented elsewhere in the education sector and as once proposed in the Dearing Report, can become a reality.
  4. Lifelong Learning: The benefits of the new system will also extend to mapping the implementation of lifelong learning policies for generations to come, making it easier for HEIs and future employers to assess a student’s qualifications and potential at whatever stage they are at in their learning journey.
  5. Enhanced Student Support: By tracking progress more effectively, HEIs will be able better to provide early intervention and targeted support when students are facing progression challenges. The new system will deliver sector-wide learning about students and their engagement which can only help to enhance the quality and timeliness of support provided to learners and improve student success rates.
  6. Morale and Workload Improvements: the benefits for staff in terms of workloads, morale, confidence, ability to focus on other work and efficiency are enormous and will make a material difference to every single institution and to the sector overall. Whilst the impact of change cannot, of course, be eliminated, the learning from all other successful implementations of SAMS and the very limited scope for any customisation will minimise the pain for most staff.
  7. Simplified Admissions Processes: Admissions offices will much more easily be able to access a student’s complete academic history, including transcripts, exam results and other relevant information, which would streamline the admissions process for both undergraduates and postgraduates and reduce the possibility of errors. UCAS processes will be simplified and the undergraduate admissions process will be hugely streamlined for students and HEIs.
  8. Enhanced Student Mobility: Our new national student record system will allow students to easily transfer their academic credit and results from one HEI to another, greatly simplifying student movement and credit transfer where students need to shift their enrolment.
  9. Improved Student Voter Registration: This will be a huge benefit of SAMS. Following the move some years ago to individual voter registration there remain significant issues in terms of getting students on the electoral register. With SAMS in place though, and assuming cooperation from local electoral registration officers as directed by central government, student voter registration will become much more straightforward as the necessary confidential identification material to verify student identity will be held securely on SAMS and then provided confidentially as required to electoral registration officers.
  10. Greater Data Accuracy and Security: Data security and accuracy are major concerns for all student record systems but by pre-specifying all of the tightest security requirements and controls up front SAMS will deliver secure, accurate and current information about all registered students, thereby reducing the risk of any data breaches or errors.
  11. Enhanced Data Analysis: With the ability to provide reports on millions of current and previous students, SAMS will provide incredibly valuable data which researchers and policymakers can use to understand trends in student performance, progress, and mobility, and to inform national as well as local developments.

Not All Good News?

Of course, there would be some drawbacks and difficulties with the proposed implementation of SAMS. Not least would be the perceived challenge to much cherished institutional autonomy. Indeed, this would in all likelihood be the author’s first complaint should such a system be imposed on the sector and were it not my proposal. Instead of joining those in gowns on the barricades in front of the ivory towers, though, any HEI leader should be pausing first to reflect on the many benefits set out above and also on the fact that, a bit like plumbing, freedom to choose your pipe supplier and welder doesn’t actually matter that much. There are bigger regulatory battles to fight.

The other potential downside is also a win. Yes, it might be argued that SAMS will represent a lowest common denominator offer and be a genuinely vanilla product which provides the basics, the real fundamentals, simply and directly for all. In fact, this is a huge plus for HEIs in that it precludes all that costly customisation and messing about which is where the real cost and pain comes in. Institutions are therefore being protected from themselves for their own good. So, even the bad news is good news.

Setting the Record Straight

In conclusion, the proposition is that, following the Swedish model of its Ladok system, the UK selects, procures and deploys a national student record system in every higher education institution thereby delivering significant benefit to all institutions and staff and resulting in major financial savings and major reductions in organisational pain.

The new national new Student Administration and Management System will deliver hugely for the UK’s higher education sector. 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 higher education institutions. What’s not to like?

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  1. Rob Cuthbert says:

    It is a great idea. In principle. But when the tender goes out, it will be won by a big IT supplier who will argue that the unique character of English, even more so British, HE demands a new build solution, rather than a straight lift of the Swedish model or an alternative which aims to overlay existing systems with a common national framework. Nevertheless the supplier will quietly adapt their existing software, some of which already almost meets the spec, and find that in some ways it is hopeless and in others it never quite works as it should. However they will persist for far longer than the planned development period and the cost overrun will reach 200% of the budget and keep going. The project will be overseen by a rapidly-changing group of civil servants from various departments who enlist an increasingly exasperated bunch of registrars, many of whom quit in disgust when their advice is ignored or overridden. Some of them because they can no longer stand the special pleading from every course leader, head of department and Dean in their own institution who want an exception to be made to accommodate their absolutely crucial and innovative curriculum experiment with its unique approach to support for disadvantaged students. In the end, five years after the originally scheduled finish date, a partial solution, hailed as a major breakthrough even though it doesn’t meet half of the original specification, is implemented by a small group of institutions hoping to curry favour for various reasons with the administration then in charge. (The government had already decided that the new system would have to be funded from within existing budgets.) The early adopters quietly abandon the new system within a couple of years, having mostly continued to run their previous systems to shadow the new one ‘for an introductory period’. Meanwhile most institutions vow to stay with their own myriad tried and tested systems, some of which have meanwhile been adapted to make interoperability more achievable. Five years after that a House of Commons Seelect Committee lambasts the waste and idiocy of the programme, but safely after the lead protagonists have long departed. The large IT supplier continues to win very large government contracts.

  2. Dan Perry says:

    Fully supportive of the concept, and highly aware of some of the potential dangers. So practically what is needed to make this happen? Here’s my top 5 to shoot at:

    1) Not all the sector will want to join in – either in the early stages, or indeed at all. Fine. Go with a limited group, but don’t customise the solution to only provide for that group. Keep to a core specification. Build it and they will come… only works if it’s compelling and not overly customised.

    2) Massively dependent on common, consistent business processes. Often those aren’t consistent within institutions never mind between them. So lots of work on standardising could happen at low cost before even looking at the technology based on ongoing work.

    3) Most cost of services are in the operational phase, so need to design with a future operating and support model. I suggest that there is better resilience through using the sector than dependent on one commercial provider.

    4) Keep it simple. Well maybe that’s not realistic, but at least keep it very clearly scoped, don’t try and do everything. Vendors can integrate with, and sell modules around, a small core. Has to be a win for commercial partners.

    5) Use the sector organisations. There is massive knowledge and expertise and sharing in UCISA, ARC, Jisc etc. This is where Higher Education is fortunate and it could make the difference from this being a concept to being a viable option.

  3. Paul Woodgates says:

    That’s a plausible – but surely not inevitable – outcome. But much of that could be avoided by taking the government out of the whole idea and leaving it to the sector to do. See my comment on Part 1 of the blog yesterday:

  4. Richard Armour says:

    Consider reviewing the experience of Australian institutions some 20? Years ago. If I recall correctly, govt. funding was made available for all institutions to procure new student system on condition it was customised to meet certain operational and reporting requirements. That was done. Unsure of the outcome but a post hoc evaluation must have been conducted.

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