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Working together Essex colleges are achieving more with less

With FE funding becoming increasingly challenging for colleges there is a considerable need to provide a superb learning experience and at the same time be more efficient. In 2014 as the joint finance director to two colleges – South Essex College, which has circa 6500 students, and Chelmsford, with circa 2500 students, I realised that we had to act so that we could do more with less. In this blog I want to outline the role that shared services between the colleges, and the technology that underpins it, has played in helping us to meet this aim.

In July 2014 we established a joint venture company, Essex Shared Services Ltd, to serve both institutions providing a single back-office finance, payroll, procurement function. Ultimately we planned to:

  • Divert costs from back office operations to providing the very best learner experience
  • Develop more financial awareness across both institutions
  • Make finance management and collaboration easier
  • Adapt to future sector and internal change

With Essex shared services now up and running, both colleges no longer have to run separate finance, payroll and procurement functions, they just concentrate on providing a great learner experience – we manage administration.

Right from the start it was important to get the foundations of a strong service in place, to help us with this we implemented Unit4’s finance and procurement administration solutions. The ERP technology system would be used to manage all administration of finance and procurement so that we could take advantage of a modern technology which is intuitive, flexible and more accurate than paper, but there were other benefits.

Right from the start good-practice FE processes inbuilt into the Unit4 system were helpful. By using the majority of the solution ‘out-of-the-box’ we began to improve operating efficiency across both colleges because the new business processes were built on proven success in the sector. Cloud delivery is also important to us, it means the system scales to our requirements and, rather than having to maintain hardware infrastructure with an inefficient licensing fee, we only pay for the software we used.

Since go-live savings of £80,000 per year have been established through more efficient deployment of resources. We don’t need to spend as much time shuffling paper or duplicating effort on both campuses. The savings that have come from this have been subsequently redirected from the back-office to frontline services.

In this sector we face huge change – which is even greater when providing services for two institutions. Therefore the flexibility of Unit4 Business World is proving valuable. Whereas with some technologies you need to call upon expensive external consultants whenever you need to make any change – like restructuring of accounts- with this technology our own business professionals can configure the solution in-house which means we keep costs down and get things done faster. Additionally in many cases we only need to do this once rather than both colleges having to do it separately.

One of the biggest productivity gains has been through the optimised delivery of information. Previously ‘purchase invoice packs’ were printed and then delivered by hand to individuals across various campuses spread across the region, this was uneconomical and meant there was a risk of suppliers being paid late. Now this information is delivered electronically to the right people, at the right time through workflow which gives an audit trail of activity. Budget holders and key personnel can access data through a self service portal when then need it.

Workflow means that we can control the distribution of information so that budget holders only get involved when they have to, busy Heads of Department and teaching staff are dramatically cutting the time they spend on administration and that means decisions can be made faster with more accurate information.

With the workflow and provision of accurate financial indicators the shared services team and colleges have established a more ‘commercially aware’ culture. Better information means staff are more mindful of the crucial impact their budgets have in delivering superb student experiences.

The upshot of the whole project is that we have met our objectives and are providing better services to stakeholders and the associated costs are reducing. Using the shared services model also enables costs to be shared without bearing the 20 per cent VAT charge. With the success we have enjoyed so far we are looking to expand the service to other cost sharing partners so that they can realise similar benefits. The more members that join, the greater the economies of scale, and therefore the greater the potential savings.

Debs Hurst is general manager of Essex Shared Services, and also director of finance at Chelmsford College & South Essex College

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