E-procurement is the efficient way forward

16th May 2008 at 01:00
Neil Munro meets the man who has been ordered to save millions
Neil Munro meets the man who has been ordered to save millions

For someone annointed by Finance Secretary John Swinney as "project manager for the savings to be delivered by the college and university sectors", Martin Fairbairn appears to carry his responsibilities lightly.

As director of governance and management: appraisal and policy at the Scottish Funding Council, Mr Fairbairn has been handed the task of overseeing "efficiency gains" in the 62 colleges and universities, which should culminate in total savings of pound;96 million by the end of the three-year period in 2011, or 2 per cent a year.

Although no firm decision has been made on the split between higher and further education, the normal 60:40 ratio in funding suggests universities will have to find savings of pound;19.2 million a year and colleges pound;12.8 million a year.

One reason for Mr Fairbairn's sangfroid could be that he's been here before. There has been an efficiency drive in the past three years and he is "quietly confident" that the target for that period of more than pound;90 million will be met by the end of July.

The territory is not unfamiliar in another respect either. The funding council will handle the process in the same way it already funds institutions, Mr Fairbairn says. "Colleges and universities receive a block of money, on a broadly formulaic basis, to deliver a certain number of taught students - or quality of research, in the case of the universities - and they know what they have to do in return for that.

"How they do it is up to them, but they have to make better use of the resources they have already, which is what efficiency gains are all about. That's the starting point."

Mr Fairbairn is keen to dispel any notion he is indulging in efficiencies for efficiency's sake. The increasing use of online enrolment, for example, is "good for students", he believes. So, too, is the development by colleges and universities of "one-stop shops" in which all student support, be it marketing, bursaries or pastoral care, is handled by a single team. "This is more efficient and it's a better deal for students as well," he says.

There is also scope for lecturers to make better use of their time for teaching, Mr Fairbairn suggests, by removing administrative burdens and freeing up their professional time so that, for example, pastoral support for students is carried out by experts.

Even the "hidden" efficiencies, such as streamlining back-office functions like IT support and financial processing, have their merits in allowing resources to be spent on the frontline.

The procurement of goods and services in the FEHE sectors, driving down costs through joint buying in bulk, will deliver "significant savings", according to the Government.

This particular efficiency is in the hands of the Advanced Procurement for Universities and Colleges (APUC) centre. Although colleges have been sceptical that it will deliver value for money and some have been wary of upsetting relationships with local suppliers, e-procurement is seen in official circles as the way forward.

Colleges which decide to do things differently "will have to convince themselves and the funding council that theirs is the right way to go", Mr Fairbairn says.

A study by the Learning and Skills Council in England showed considerable potential for colleges and universities in using "collaborative contracts" rather than striking local deals - ranging from savings of 40 per cent in buying mobile phones to 4 per cent in ordering paper.

One initiative which the funding council believes will pay dividends, although it is not directly part of the efficiency drive, is the development of a "national entitlement card". Led by Abertay University and the Scottish Further Education Unit, this will allow all those attending school, college or university to access a whole variety of services with one piece of plastic. Again, Mr Fairbairn regards it as "a better use of resources and a good deal for students".

He acknowledges it is becoming "increasingly challenging" to make better use of resources. This time round, the funding council will be embarking on a series of seminars and issuing guidance on how best value can be best achieved. In particular, they will take soundings from the local government Improvement Service.

"We're doing this in the spirit of facilitating colleges and universities talking to each other, not the funding council telling them how to do it," says Mr Fairbairn.

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