Features: May 17th, 2013

Capita’s Rob Elliott discusses how technology can help colleges meet KPIs and maximise their chances of long-term viability and success.

As part of substantial reforms to post-16 education, the introduction of a new FE Commissioner could see tough action for any further education college that has an inadequate rating, misses minimum standards of performance or has financial problems. This could include a change of governors,  loss of power over decisions around staff or expenditure – and ultimately, colleges could be closed.

With such severe consequences a possibility, the importance of understanding intimately how your college is functioning and knowing its performance is up to scratch has never been greater.

When it comes to success, the quality of educational provision, business skills as well as qualifications for students and long-term financial stability are the key ingredients. Technology can improve efficiency in and understanding of these areas. It is, therefore, prudent to make sure you are using it to the full.

The Learning and Skills Improvement Service report ‘Improving efficiency and effectiveness: a guide for colleges and providers’, identified five key performance indicators (KPIs) that the most successful colleges manage well, and technology offered a tangible benefit in each area.

Here’s a brief checklist of how you can make sure the tools at your disposal are working hard for you.

  1. 1.       Academic staff utilisation

Typical staff utilisation can be as low as 70%, so there are clearly efficiency gains to be made as this increases. However it’s a complicated process with many variables, and would be extraordinarily difficult to do with any degree of accuracy without using a management information system (MIS).

For maximum efficiency, make sure you are exploiting the full capability of your MIS to investigate staff skill sets and availability, and then to cross check this against curriculum, room utilisation and timetables. For example, you might want to look at the structure of your curriculum. Is what you offer optimised against the skills of your full-time staff? You may benefit from scrutinising staff locations – if you are multi-campus, you might find they are having to commute to meet the demands of the timetable. Are timetables blocked with aligned break and lunch times to allow for ease of staff movement? It could also help to explore the ratio of teaching staff to support staff. Could teaching contact time be maximised if this was changed? And is the right level of remission and abatement being applied to teaching staff?

Staff pay tends to represent more than two thirds of costs within a college, so this coud be an exercise well worth undertaking in your institution.

  1. 2.       Curriculum efficiency

The most successful colleges optimise not only the curriculum they offer, but also the manner in which it is delivered. That means getting to grips with two major funding methodology changes, a broad range of available guidance, briefings and consultations on refinements, funding rates, retention factors and area cost uplifts.

While there is a drive to simplify funding, it can be a complicated process for staff responsible for curriculum planning to steer through. You really need to know how the various tweaks to national funding rates, retention factors, cost weighting factors et al will affect you, so the first step is to become as well-informed as possible. Read everything you can, consult your peers and seek out those in the sector who can explain the methodologies, and the potential risks or unintended consequences of getting it wrong.

Then, take full advantage of the comprehensive and flexible planning software that exists, which can gather all the factors required to make calculations and undertake ‘what if’ scenarios.  This will help you answer a myriad of important questions – is your full-time head count maximised at 600 Guided Learning Hours (GLH)? Have you got the start dates right to avoid relegating full-time staff to part-time?  Will transitional protection for the reduction in entitlement funding help you? 

  1. 3.       Group size

Ask a lecturer what they think their average class size is and you might hear, “20…no, maybe 17”. The reality is likely to be closer to 12.  One extra student in a group with the same lecturer and classroom could bring in up to £3500 of additional funding without increasing costs or reducing the quality of education, so it certainly pays to know your numbers.

The technology exists to assist with accurate and continual monitoring of group sizes to track the practicability of courses. Knowing whether there are enough students to make a course viable or if two small classes with a high level of cross-over could become one allows senior management to make more informed decisions and react promptly to in-year changes.

To really be effective, use your MIS to join up curriculum, enrolments, timetables and registers. The complexity of factors surrounding this type of data is significant, but technology will give a clear and complete picture during planning and delivery. This means informed management decisions can be made in a timely fashion.

  1. 4.       Success rates by course

Recording success rates are important to ensure you claim for everything that is allowed. Modelling different qualifications within an overall programme, with various start and finish dates, means that modules can be completed even if the umbrella qualification is not. For example, if a Health Care student drops out in the second term, they may still be able to walk away with the social care qualification they completed in term one. This is good news for your success rates, but be careful. By definition, a model is a simplified representation of reality, so check your MIS can model at a granular enough level to ensure your college is rewarded for the successes it achieves.

A stronger focus on destination data will also have an impact on funding, so colleges need to keep in touch with former students and be aware of their employment status. From April 2014, FE colleges delivering HE courses will be expected to fund and complete the Destination of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) survey themselves. So extending the use of your MIS to become a relationship management system and keep track of this data makes sense, and rationalises the flow of information.

  1. 5.       Support costs as percentage of income

One of the most taxing challenges colleges are currently facing is reducing costs without reducing the quality of teaching.

Teaching staff are your core business so, as discussed above, colleges need to keep a tight rein on how they are being used. This extends to seeing if any non-teaching activites can be diverted to administrative staff.

But it also means looking at where unnessary and time-consuming tasks can be eliminated. This might be either by ensuring data can be entered once then reused many times, or by introducing elements of self-service that allow students themselves to tap in the data required. In this way, resources at the chalkface can be freed up. And if student service staff spend less time trying to get hold of the information they need, they can spend more time on pastoral care.

The advantage of taking a technological approach to measuring success in your institution can also help you achieve the ultimate aim of any college – to provide an outstanding student experience.

Rob Elliott is UK products manager for Capita’s further and higher education business (www.capita-fhe.co.uk).