The benefits of national shared services for universities

Published On: 14 October 2021|

Universities need a balance between competition and collaboration when it comes to shared services. The benefits of sharing services outweigh any potential disadvantages.

“We have to identify what lends itself to shared services across the system and what doesn’t and there needs to be a balance between shared service and internal capacity at an institution,” says Dr Diane Parker (left), Advisor to the University of Pretoria’s Vice-Chancellor and Principal and former Deputy Director-General University Branch at the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET).

She was speaking during the Shared Services: Drivers, Benefits, Success Factors and Challenges session in last week’s 2nd Universities South Africa (USAf) Higher Education Conference, conducted in collaboration with the Council on Higher Education (CHE). Shared Services was the sub-theme of USAf’s Funding Strategy Group’s third breakaway session on Day Two of the conference themed The Engaged University.

“I have approached this from a different angle. I am not thinking about shared services as a way of creating financial sustainability – although one would hope that they would create efficiencies, thereby lowering costs – but rather from the perspective of how we can use shared services to strengthen cooperation, collaboration and partnerships across the system and leverage information and expertise for the common good.”

Key reasons to share services, in her opinion, are capacity and capability development; the strengthening of systems; improved efficiencies and effectiveness as well as an improvement in overall quality.

South Africa has a fairly small national system with only 26 universities and 50 Technical Vocational Education and Training (TVET) colleges, “although I can’t see why, in the long run, private institutions shouldn’t also be included”.

“If you want shared services at a national level, all institutions need to buy into the idea and become part of the system. You can’t have some in and some out. One of the problems faced is that of outsourcing as often university staff feel that they are handing over responsibility. It is imperative to emphasise that there are clear gains for everybody involved,” she said.

“Another challenge is how tackle this within such a differentiated system – there are some universities with impressive financial balance sheets while others don’t have these. There are also the issues of cyber-security and Popia (Protection of Personal Information Act) compliance. These are critical because a lot of information is sensitive.”

She shared some of the national shared services which are under development and being funded by the DHET including:

The National Student Data Warehouse (NSDW)
The platform is owned by the DHET and will integrate and leverage large national data sets to support student success. It will augment and support real-time analytics and intervention work. While individual universities have been developing their own data and analytics processes, access to these national databases is really important particularly for longitudinal data. There will be different levels of access; any institution can get full access to its own information but when it comes to information from other institutions it would be anonymous and there would also be security levels involved but it would enable comparative data analytics.

The Macro Infrastructure Framework (MIF)
MIF was implemented in 2017 and is a cloud-based IT platform with information related to infrastructure at each university, including applications for funding and reporting progress about funding as well as information about good practice. It includes an infrastructure management guide which provides principles, norms and standards for managing university infrastructure with detailed annexures.

The Infrastructure Development Support Programme (IDS)
This was established in 2018 to develop the capacity of universities to manage and maintain their infrastructure.

Central Applications Service (CAS)
CAS, a one-stop shop for applications, accommodation and funding, is something that has been long in the making and was supposed to be piloted this year, said Parker. However, project management issues have gotten in the way. “Currently, around the country, people have to apply to different institutions. And every year we hear how problematic it is. You will get 80 000 applications at the one institution, and 120 000 at another and so on. We know that many are the same people applying. CAS will create greater possibilities within the system in terms of access.”

National Open Learning System (NOLS)
NOLS is being developed by the department in partnership with the European Union. It is a national open learning platform with open learning materials, open educational resources and specific ones for TVETs for engineering and trades as well as advanced diploma materials. All institutions will be able to utilise and share the open learning resources.

The Higher Education Leadership and Management Programme (HELM)
HELM programmes have been designed and developed to assist individual leaders and managers at the learning institutions in identifying their capacity needs and then align these to appropriate leadership development pathways.

Other possibilities include a national digital library, incorporating all knowledge resources including electronic journals.

Dr Parker referenced Jisc which provides digital solutions for UK education with the vision for that country to become the most digitally advanced education and research nation in the world.

“Earlier in this same session, Professor David Maguire, Vice-Chancellor at the University of Sussex in the UK, talked about Jisc. It made me wonder if we should be thinking bigger and, rather than setting up all these separate entities, set up just one,” she said.

What would she tell universities who are sceptical about central application services and who feel that it is a risk to their autonomy and will cost them money?

“Over the last 10 years there have been many conversations about exactly how to get buy-in from all the universities. However, in the past few years, particularly since 2015 with the Fees Must Fall movement, most institutions have recognised that having a central service that actually works would be to their advantage.

“It is an application service, not an admission service. Individual students would still select where they want to apply and what they want to study and the institutions would then select from the applicants. However, it creates much better efficiency in terms of acceptance. Students would have to timeously accept a place offered at a university and not play a wait-and-see game. We have so many complaints from students who believe they have been accepted but, when they go back to the university, they no longer have the place. It has huge advantages for both institutions and students who don’t have to submit multiple application forms. It works successfully in numerous countries including others in Africa. I think we’ve moved past any initial concerns and what we need is to get this system up-and-running.”

Janine Greenleaf Walker is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.