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Empowering teaching, learning and research at universities

Empowering teaching, learning, research at universities

When universities have the right integrated strategy and technology for their ‘middle office’ operations – teaching, learning and research – they are better placed to be competitive and to make an impact.


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At the heart of a university is its teaching, learning and research – what we refer to as the university’s ‘middle office’. It sits between the ‘front office ’ (where the university interacts with the ‘customer’ at the pre-student, student, and alumni stages), and the ‘back office ’, (administrative functions such as HR, payroll, IT and finance). Across Australia, this ‘middle office’ area is undergoing fundamental change.

On the teaching and learning side, changing student demographics, increased digital literacy, and new expectations of how people want to learn and where, are key. The model of the 3-year degree is under threat, as students seek out micro-credentials and craft their own journey of study, often online, and at different stages throughout life. Add to this global competition, with big-name universities offering online learning that attracts people that may otherwise study in Australia, and the current business model is up for rethinking.

In the research area, government policy is shifting the goal posts from publication in academic journals, to a need to show evidence of relationships with industry, and evidence of real world impact. Researchers must answer questions such as – ‘Who do you collaborate with, who have you worked with in the industry, and what outcomes has your research had on society?’ This is shifting the funding base of university research from researcher driven, grant-based funding, to problem driven collaborative projects with research users.

These changes are occurring rapidly, but for many universities the technology and processes supporting the middle office are not designed to cater for these disruptions. Universities need a clear strategy to better integrate the middle office, and the right technology to meet these demands.

Middle office inefficiencies

In the middle office, there are countless individuals undertaking teaching, learning and research, with endless workflows between them. For example, between teacher and teacher, teacher and student, researcher to researcher, researcher to industry, researcher to government, student to student, etc.

To impose order on these workflows, the tendency of many universities has been to build in layers of administration. But administration takes academics away from the core business of teaching and research, resulting in a build-up of inefficiencies.

Additional inefficiency is created when entirely new ‘add-on businesses’ are designed, for example, to cater for online learning and micro-credential offerings. These can involve different operating models and technology systems that are not linked to existing systems. Long term, this ‘add on’ approach builds complexity, requires more administration, more customer management, and more retrospective integration. Where these solutions are ‘off the shelf’, they are seldom fit for purpose, and require significant customisations. Where they are built in house, issues around support and longevity are risks.

As part of a technology transformation to meet new demands, planning to minimise these inefficiencies and optimise middle office operations needs to be factored in so the middle office can be more productive and competitive.

A middle office transformation

A middle office technology transformation should ideally be part of an overall connected enterprise, where the university’s front, middle and back offices integrate seamlessly.

While new technologies are used in the middle office – such as a customer relationship management (CRM) systems, and workflow and collaboration tools – it is how systems integrate and drive business processes that is key to middle office efficiency and outcomes.

The middle office can be particularly complex as systems need to integrate with the front office and back office systems. For example, a CRM for research engagement needs to integrate across:

  • HR systems – where researchers are employees
  • finance systems – where industry funding will be processed
  • research management systems – where projects are recorded and tracked.

This has to be done with an eye to middle office processes like optimising opportunities, and reporting to government and other stakeholders.

KPMG’s Powered Enterprise approach is designed to give universities a clear business strategy and the aligned technology to make this a more seamless experience.

Empowering the middle

For a leading Australian university, we applied our transformation methodology to focus on the strategy and implementation of a new research management system to assist researchers to better collaborate, as well as track, evidence, and monitor research outcomes.

Rather than just implementing the technology, we identified the business need, aligned it to a technology strategy, and then our people and change experts supported staff through the transformation. The outcome was a user-centred design, and minimal disruption to workflow on roll-out.

For another leading university, we focused on building a data-rich middle office. The university collects vast quantities of data on its activities, but its ability to use this data for business planning and improvement was immature. We were able to bring insights from our work in other data-rich areas, such as banking and finance, to instil data and analytics best-practice approaches to help the university make the most of the data for key decisions.

Impacting outcomes

The key to each transformation is starting with an integrated strategy that aligns to overall business strategy, and then applying the right technology transformation to bring it to life.

When this is done, the central hub of universities, teaching, learning and researching, can be more integrated, collaborative, agile, evidence based and data-driven, ensuring it is better positioned to meet ever-changing demands, and compete on the world stage.

Further reading

The back office of a university is as equally important as the middle office. Find out why in Building a connected back office in universities.

A connected back office of a university should be complemented by a connected front office. See what this looks like in Creating a connected 50-year student journey.

© 2020 KPMG, an Australian partnership and a member firm of the KPMG network of independent member firms affiliated with KPMG International Cooperative ("KPMG International"), a Swiss entity. All rights reserved. Liability limited by a scheme approved under Professional Standards Legislation.

KPMG International Cooperative (“KPMG International”) is a Swiss entity. Member firms of the KPMG network of independent firms are affiliated with KPMG International. KPMG International provides no client services. No member firm has any authority to obligate or bind KPMG International or any other member firm vis-à-vis third parties, nor does KPMG International have any such authority to obligate or bind any member firm.

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