From education to employment

How many FE establishments are held hostage by their own software?

Paul Sparkes, Commercial Director, iplicit

It’s no secret that accounting and finance professionals within the Further Education (FE) sector are tasked with lots of responsibility.

From budgets and grant management to overall strategy, there’s a lot they need to ‘get right’ for the financial health of the school or college.

FE establishments are often sold ‘the next big thing’ in software to transform their finance function, but that it rarely lives up to its promise or expectation.

Is your institution hostage to its accounting and finance software? 

Here are some tips on how to break free:

Financial technology in the FE sector

For many years, the education sector has experienced a ‘coming of age’ regarding digital solutions – whether to modernise classroom equipment or facilitate remote teaching – allowing schools and colleges across the country to streamline operations and offer more flexibility.

But when looking at school and college accounting and finance software specifically, it’s often the case that the systems in place are of the legacy variety. Many are clunky and inflexible in the way they both look and operate, and they often work on a Local Area Network (LAN) accessed by clunky Virtual Private Network’s.

In essence, it can often feel like taking a step back in time when firing up one of these on-premise systems, and this is greatly different from the modern, quick, and reliable software finance professionals are using everywhere else in their personal lives.

But overhauling an entire finance infrastructure is a big decision for FE institutions, so it has to be right. And unfortunately, many are often ‘sold the dream’ but are left feeling disappointed with the reality.

It’s also frequently the case that the providers of these archaic, unagile systems lock customers into long-term contracts, so it’s more difficult for them to leave when they realise the software is ageing and isn’t able to adapt to suit their evolving needs. And this exploitation needs to stop.

Are legacy systems preventing real progress?

It’s no secret that education establishments across the country are continually evolving their operations and their overall offering to students and teachers alike, in order to continue delivering a high-quality education provision. But what about the technology behind the scenes?

Accounting and finance systems are the lifeblood of FE sites – a place to manage funding, control budgets, conduct reporting, and more – but older solutions restrict the extent to which an institution can improve and streamline its processes.

Not only do long contract agreements bind sites to that one, rapidly ageing solution, but procurement teams’ hands are forced when the technology requires updating – which comes at a major additional cost, unspecified at the start of the buying process.

And this is how FE establishments quickly become held ‘hostage’ by their investments.

Functionality frustrations are also a common gripe with legacy tech. For instance, while remote desktop access is often used with older systems – because it allows staff to gain entry to a specific PC from a different location – the process can often be slow and frustrating.

As a result, this makes what should be quick, straightforward tasks – such as authorising transactions or departmental reporting – time consuming and inefficient. It often involves the need for vast data exports to Microsoft Excel and the rebuilding of the information, too.

In reality, a modern finance system should act as an ‘enabler’ – automating, and thus reducing, the time spent on mundane tasks and should also offer seamless integration and flexible access from anywhere, on any device. At its very core, it should meet and fulfil the institution’s individual needs and facilitate, not hinder, staff productivity.

Is cloud the way forward in education?

Yes – but it depends on the type of cloud.

In truth, looking to the cloud can help to tackle many FE institutions’ pain-points – surrounding flexible, agile access, and headache-free cash flow management – so why are legacy systems still being used?

A lot of this could be attributed to the ‘fear of change’ that sweeps throughout the education sector. But while the thought of migrating accounting and finance operations may sound like a headache to implement, it can actually be done easily when working together with a ‘true cloud’ specialist provider who listens.

Unlike local on-premise solutions, the cloud doesn’t require sites to invest in and install costly hardware, and typically, has a lower risk of downtime. Yet while scalability is also much easier with cloud solutions, it’s important to look out for ‘fake cloud’ – and avoid it.

But what exactly is ‘fake cloud’?

In a nutshell, this is when tech providers take the on-premise version of the software and host it on hardware in an off-site location – which means it isn’t ‘true cloud’ at all.

As a result, this can see colleges continuing to utilise legacy software that’s designed for LANs and PCs, not for the cloud – experiencing limited functionality, scalability, and integration capabilities. This is what’s known as SoSaaS ‘Same Old Software as a Service’ – pretending it’s a modern system, when it isn’t.

Ultimately, while cloud solutions offer increased flexibility for education establishments, due diligence during procurement is crucial – not only to avoid being held hostage to complex technology that is ageing and expensive to maintain, but to ensure the tool adapts to suit the needs of the institution, and not the other way around.

The digital evolution of the education sector is continuing at pace and there’s never been a better time to bridge the disconnect between the technology in place and the goals FE sites are aspiring towards.

It’s only when this is achieved that those objectives are made possible, and FE can reap the benefits of savvy software that commercial organisations have been experiencing for the last few years.

Paul Sparkes, Commercial Director, iplicit

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