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Working with UK universities, a common theme has recently emerged - everyone is worrying about provision management

Managing provision is a big challenge for higher education

In my work with UK higher education institutions, I have seen a pattern emerging over the last few years; everyone is worrying about how their provision is managed. As universities are put under further pressure to demonstrate value and relevance for prospective students, the portfolio of programmes on offer and their content naturally come under scrutiny. Given this, it would be convenient if the review and approval processes around what a university provides to market were slick, the information easily accessed and freely available. Unfortunately it is not so for many institutions, who are now wrestling with how to approach this challenge.

A time of change

The range of courses and their content has always been important for higher education institutions, but new focus is being found from other sources. The introduction of KIS, means that academic offices need to be able to provide course statistics to be published online (the interested should check out the Unistats website which allows direct comparison of programmes across institutions). Those looking further ahead are anticipating the requirements for HEAR, where knowing the state of a programme and its key learning outcomes as they were in the past is also needed. These pressures are also set against a background of wider change, as institutions find themselves with a proliferation of programmes, and fight to rationalise their portfolios with employability, competitiveness and solid academic outcomes in mind.

Paper mountains

When speaking to those faced with bringing order to the potential chaos, I often ask about how information is currently organised; the most common response? In documents. Really big documents. All the information which needs to be extracted for official uses, reviewed by panels and have changes managed reliably, is mostly hidden in gargantuan programme specifications. Usually these are a Word document, though more often spotted in the wild as mounds of printouts, so thick as to be bulletproof. Who knows which the latest version is, or who has seen it?

Big questions

Given these challenges, you would expect that some of the big software vendors in higher education would be queuing up to come to the rescue with integrated solutions. Of that I have not seen much sign. Many turn to the institutions' student record system in hope that it can help, since it already contains some of the information, but most of these systems lack the academic focus and ability to deal with the complexity in how provision is constructed. Sometimes working within limitations of a product is a pragmatic choice, but I would argue something so fundamental as managing what an institution offers for study is probably not the place to compromise.

As I work with organisations on these problems, it is clear that there are a lot of questions to ask before getting to a software solution to alleviate some of these woes; and the answers can be different for each institution. Can key learning outcomes be mapped against levels of study, or different awards available on a single programme? How can I find out which combined programmes contain a module, and how do major and minor versions differ in their delivery patterns? If a module changes who should be told, and should they get a chance to critique those changes? You can almost feel the headaches starting already. I believe this then is the key task, to ask the tough questions, challenge the makeup and structure of how a competitive set of programmes should be managed and then, maybe, to see how technology can help smooth the path to adoption.

Hear Andy Bates, Lead Consultant in AEC and Dan Burrows, Executive Transformation Consultant speaking at DCW 2019

17 October 2019 , ExCel London

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