Five steps for successful system procurement in higher education

02 April 2024 - Five steps for successful system procurement in higher education

Five steps for successful system procurement in higher education


From student records through to HR, finance, and procurement, high-quality digital enterprise systems underpin the effective running of higher education institutions. Many universities are overhauling outdated legacy systems and seizing the opportunities presented by cloud migration, targeted upgrades, and broader digital transformation. However, choosing and embedding new interoperable digital enterprise solutions is far from simple. As universities continue on with limited resources and budgets, system upgrades typically only happen once every decade.

Our latest research into UK higher education found that 90 percent of university leaders say the sector has never experienced greater challenges – including strained budgets, difficult stakeholder relationships, and unpredictable demand. Universities have mastered measured improvement, but in a resource-strapped and uncertain environment, 80 percent of respondents recognise the need for fundamental reform. A key aspect of this reform is better digital systems and data enablement, taking advantage of new technologies such as automation and artificial intelligence (AI) to ultimately create better staff and student experiences. Here, we set out five key steps to help universities choose and implement the right solution.

1. Adopt a pragmatic, market-led approach 

Universities often develop elaborate process maps to show current and aspired systems (‘as is’ and ‘to be’) to identify their detailed requirements. However, with Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), the functional ‘to be’ processes will be heavily dictated by the solution, and increasingly by the nascent opportunities of process automation and AI. Working with team leaders and users to understand the critical business processes that are unique to the institution will help to select the best solution and allow system integrators to estimate their effort. Time can then be spent training users during configuration and implementation. 

Non-functional requirements – such as availability – are often dictated by the software platform, which has standard service level agreements (SLAs) for all customers. Custom SLAs are likely to be disproportionately expensive and difficult to manage. Rather than spending time on custom requirements, it’s advisable to understand the standard offerings and work with key internal stakeholders including students, staff, and especially IT teams to identify the most appropriate solution.

2. Combine services and software into a single procurement exercise

Digital upgrade and transformation projects often involve procuring software as well as a systems integrator to manage implementation and provide initial (and sometimes ongoing) support. Universities can procure software and system integrators in a variety of ways. They can choose the software first and then engage a system integrator – however, the integrator may then attribute any performance dips to the choice of software, while the software vendor may place accountability on the integrator. Similarly, choosing a system integrator before the software risks a disconnect between the software and the system integrator’s strengths. Even if the software and integrator are procured in parallel, these risks can persist. 

The answer is to combine the two procurement activities, with the system integrator embedding their recommended software. This alleviates the potential disconnect and places the risk of underperformance squarely on the integrator’s shoulders. Over recent years, we have worked with seven universities to structure their procurements this way, and each time received a strong response from the supply market.

3. Facilitate genuine, two-way engagement with potential suppliers

Interactive procurement, such as ‘competitive dialogue’ processes in which buyers have conversations with a range of possible suppliers, can be complex and time-consuming. However, a well-run interactive process can help universities to explore the market and refine their requirements, particularly looking at how they can exploit opportunities offered by contemporary platforms in areas such as automation and AI. 

Similarly, two-way engagement reduces the risk of introducing requirements that are beyond suppliers’ capabilities, or disproportionately expensive. For example, we recently helped to run a ‘short sharp’ supplier dialogue process for a Russell Group university. This enabled the creation of a credible implementation plan during the procurement process, aligned to the academic cycle.

4. Negotiate a robust contract with effective incentives and remedies

Renegotiating the terms of a software licensing contract can be tricky, as vendors control their costs by offering a similar service and contractual terms to all clients. However, most integrators are open to negotiation. Agreeing a robust contract with the system integrator is crucial, particularly to ensure: 

Clear responsibility on the integrator to deliver the requirements
A shared implementation plan with risk mitigation measures
Spend controls
A set of escalating remedies.

Confirming these key service aspects at procurement stage will help the project remain on track and support openness and understanding between the buyer and supplier. 

5. Align with a broader programme of business design and change

Introducing any new software solution requires significant preparatory work, including data cleansing, confirming organisational structures, and stakeholder engagement. University leaders play a key role in smoothing the implementation journey by shepherding stakeholders and users towards adopting the solution, while resisting calls to adapt the solution to existing, outmoded ways of working. Leaders can also support successful implementation by communicating the link between the solution and its benefits, and ensuring the overarching change programme is properly resourced, managed effectively, and well-understood by stakeholders. 

Our research into the state of the higher education sector reveals that while respondents say new technologies such as AI are yet to be fully realised, they will prove positive for the sector. The potential benefits include personalisation, better experiences, and more effective communication across staff and students. Empowering all users, from senior academics to junior support staff, through training, support, and socialisation – such as working groups and ‘show and tell’ events – will accelerate towards these goals. 

The higher education sector hasn’t typically embraced holistic, cross-organisation digital transformation. However, a combination of factors – including the need for greater efficiency and student demand – have sparked interest and investment in system upgrades and, in some cases, wider transformation. Embedding the right solution starts even before the procurement exercise, with a clear sense of the value and benefits the change is expected to bring. From here, universities can pragmatically assess what’s on offer, join up procurement activities, engage in two-way engagement with suppliers, negotiate a strong contract, and – perhaps most importantly – align upgrades with a clearly communicated, well-understood transformation strategy. 

Blog written by Edward Jones, Sourcing expert, PA Consulting