• Sam Sanders, Leadership |
4 min read

Like all sectors, higher education faces many complex challenges that need to be addressed for universities to stay competitive. Some of these challenges have accelerated during COVID-19, such as the need to offer better remote working and teaching. Others were in place before the pandemic, from increased competition, to industry’s changing expectations of graduates, or students demanding customer experiences that keep up with leading digital businesses, to name a few.

Having the latest Cloud technology in back-office functions, such as finance, HR, marketing and academic administration, is a key tool to help. For example, the universities that had already successfully migrated to a software as a service (SaaS) model were the ones that were able to quickly facilitate remote working during the pandemic, and that have already realised the potential benefits of a consistent and standardised approach.

However, other universities are still hesitant to take the leap, and are therefore missing out on best practice processes and efficiencies. Getting there means letting go of legacy systems, and recognising and overcoming common barriers to change. 

Issues of legacy technology

Many back-office functions are sitting on outdated, on-premise software which is not delivering the benefits that they need to meet today’s demands.

Legacy technology often lack the latest in data analytics, automation, and artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities that are increasingly essential for success. In addition, inconsistent data management, a lack flexibility, and a siloed approach to working, mean that professional services functions often struggle to share information in a consistent, efficient and seamless way.

Without the benefit of frequent security updates from cloud providers, legacy technology can also be a cyber security risk and therefore be a threat to resilience. 

Barriers to change

While it may be clear that legacy technology is holding universities back, there are a number of common reasons why there is often reluctance to move to the Cloud.

To begin, barriers can include concerns about altering how things have always been done, or change fatigue due to the number of times that new technologies have been implemented and failed. This failure often happens when technology transformation is treated solely as an IT issue rather than being business-led. As a result, end-users never fully adopt the change or take full advantage of new capabilities. Without engagement, there can also be delays, cost overruns and general dissatisfaction with the end results.

Another barrier in the sector has to do with investment strategies. Universities have traditionally found it easier to make a business case for programmes where there is a very visible payback. For example, there has been stronger investment in physical space than technology (‘bricks not clicks’). This has compounded a situation of significant underinvestment in technology infrastructure over the past two to three decades.

A third barrier is often the lack of a coherent strategy. In universities, there has been a tradition of different functions choosing their own ‘best in breed’ technology solutions, without sufficient thought being given to how systems and data-flows connect across the business. Whilst this picture has improved over time, this siloed mentality has also meant that universities have often struggled to formulate or deliver a consistent enterprise strategy or architectural plan. There can be countless add-ons, customisations and integrations that are not always fully documented, making it hard to implement upgrades – let alone thinking about a complete change of approach. 

Seeing the potential

For universities that are willing to let go of legacy systems and overcome these barriers to change, the benefits of a move to the Cloud can be quickly realised.

The latest Cloud technologies offer a chance to embrace better remote working, data and analytics, and processing efficiencies. There is the potential to make the most of advances in robotic process automation and AI, especially in the areas of customer engagement and report consolidation.

As universities also must manage a lot of statutory reporting, another advantage is that it can offer a ‘single source of truth’ for things like cost accounting or performance metrics. It also helps to make sure that functions always have the latest in security, which is a big challenge for IT teams to manage with on-premise software.

From a staff and student perspective, cloud technology offers the potential to deliver a seamless experience. For example, complex and often time-consuming administrative processes such as staff recruitment are easily tracked throughout every stage so it is clear who has ownership and accountability of it at all times. This is all made possible with greater consolidation of systems across the business, and interfaces that are increasingly intuitive and user-friendly.

Making the move

While there are many benefits from a move to a SaaS delivery model, simply plugging into the Cloud and hoping for the best is not going to deliver the transformational business benefits that universities need. A more strategic approach is required, focused not just on the technology but the entire operating model of your HR, Finance, Payroll and Procurement functions , including every facet of day-to-day delivery: core processes, people, customer experience, service delivery, data, controls and governance.

It is important not to treat the transition to the cloud as an ‘IT issue’, but rather as something that is business led and IT enabled. There is also a need to fully recognise and embrace the organisational and cultural changes required to make it a success.

KPMG has created a robust solution to help universities seamlessly transition into Cloud technologies. You can find out more about our approach in my next blog.