Colleges daunted by data demands

18th November 1994 at 00:00
Lectures are losing out to micros, a TES survey has revealed Ian Nash and Estelle Maxwell report. Many colleges have been forced to choose between investing in information technology for administration or for the curriculum, the TES survey reveals. More than two-thirds of colleges said responsibility to provide information - such as student numbers for funding purposes - had led to a conflict of priorities. This had caused chaos and placed staff under enormous pressure.

The remainder said the Further Education Funding Council requirements for data on students were in line with their priorities, but half of these respondents were worried about the amount of information demanded.

One expressed the view of 20 per cent of managers when he said: "The FEFC priorities and our own are entirely congruent." And even the harshest critics admitted that they "may yet be grateful for the pressure which has forced us to tackle these problems early". From next year, colleges will depend for much of their funding on the computer-audited data on student admissions and performance.

One college had hired temporary admin staff to cope with the additional workload, while three others said they had had to put on additional permanent staff. Twenty per cent said they needed more sophisticated management information systems (MISs).

The principal of a northern college said: "Some of the FEFC demands for information have been difficult for colleges to comply with and our MIS has gone through a number of minor revolutions to match up to its models."

A Yorkshire principal said: "The demand from the Department for Education and FEFC on reports has become phenomenal compared to a year ago.

"The pressure computing staff have been under has been much greater and at the same time they face increasingly sophisticated demands from the staff for teaching materials."

Many colleges told how, post-incorporation, their IT systems had diversified or been upgraded with spending ranging between Pounds 25,000 and Pounds 300, 000 to Pounds 400,000 annually on administration, including staff. While some had bought in management information systems, others had tried to purchase compatible equipment for both administrative and curriculum use.

One in six colleges were unable to give annual figures, but the rest said they relied on FEFC funding for IT investment, often ring-fencing sums from their annual budget. Forty per cent of colleges received some support from training and enterprise councils.

One in seven colleges called for increased Government support to allow them to invest in more sophisticated machines to keep up with the changing workplace.

William Haddock, curriculum adviser on IT at Derwentside tertiary college, Durham, said: "We need a large cash injection to keep pace with the demands on IT being made by the curriculum. It affects us, particularly, as a small college. The needs of our students are the same as those in a larger institution but we have a smaller piece of the cake and therefore less to allocate to IT."

But the tight reins kept by the FEFC on the information and accounting procedures of colleges had bought other benefits to help the smooth running of colleges. Many spoke of "gaps" being found in business plans which colleges were able to fill.

One principal said: "Once we have responded to the FEFC needs, forward-thinking colleges will be able to use that information to improve recruitment and to retain students. It is just a pain getting there."

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