18 September 2003
University purchasers have embarked on a new strategy that includes local consortia and - perhaps - national deals. David Arminas assesses its chances
Barely five weeks after coming into existence, the higher education's procurement advisory body laid out an ambitious five-year plan to the 260 delegates at this year's Conference on University Purchasing at the University of Exeter campus.
The Procurement Strategy Implementation Group (Proc-HE), which took over from the now disbanded Joint Procurement Policy and Strategy Group (JPPSG) last month, raised the stakes for university purchasers by setting out eight strategic objectives.
Each objective lists outcomes, main actions and commitments, key performance targets and dates, with lead responsibility groups spelled out. Importantly, each objective lists key risks and obstacles to overcome.
The objectives are designed to foster a culture in which purchasers can improve their own performance and raise the profile of the profession with suppliers and university management boards, as well as increase communication among themselves to ensure best practice knowledge is widely shared.
Delegates were generally enthusiastic about Proc-HE and its 2003-08 plan. It was seen as the way forward and a welcome relief from the acrimony that surrounded the attempt to improve purchasing in higher education nearly four years ago.
In November 1999, a major review of university purchasing by the JPPSG appeared to cast doubt on the wisdom of consortia set-ups. It questioned their importance in the search for improved purchasing. Large national contracts administrated centrally with obligatory buy-in from universities were suggested as a possible way forward.
Consortia heads were quick to react. By April 2000, the JPPSG had clarified that it was not meant to be a top-down, centrally administrated procurement arrangement for higher education. A further major review by the JPPSG last year resulted in the launch of Proc-HE in August.
If Proc-HE's strategy is an attempt to heal a bitter divide on moving forward, it's done an admirable job, according to some delegates.
John Ritchie, director of the London Universities Purchasing Consortium, was pleased that Proc-HE is more representative than its forerunner, the JPPSG.
"Being made up of a number of institutional representatives and consortia heads is critical," he said. "There are two golden rules for their strategy. One is to harness existing skills and the other is to use consortia and their networks. Don't reinvent wheels. Proc-HE's strategic vision focuses on inclusivity. It's a step forward because it's the first time we have a national group seeking to consult and involve the sector. It strengthens the present set-up."
The big question for university purchasers is whether they can pull it off. Vincent John, chairman of Proc-HE and head of the Association of University Purchasing Officers, is confident that the strategy is a good start.
The first strategic objective is to promote delivery of value for money through good procurement practice. A key performance target is to get the "full co-operation of all consortia to share information".
As one purchasing manager said, there is a great need for sharing of information. She wants to see more collaboration opportunities for smaller universities to team up with bigger universities, in particular outside her consortia area, to get better volume discounts.
The second objective, to encourage a culture of continuous improvement, openness and accountability, will require a spending profile of the sector to identify commodities and services best purchased through local, regional or national contracts. Consortia, which in 1999 balked at the notion that national deals might be mandatory, now have the lead responsibility for a review.
In both cases, consortia have been co-opted into the process and will play a major role in deciding what may, or may not, be mandatory. Can they work together well?
The answer is probably yes, according to Robert Garvey, purchasing director at the University of Bristol: "A lot has changed since then and national contracts are more developed. Before this, they were considered a part of a threat to consortia powers. Purchasers are now more used to working together."
At the moment, the university purchasing fraternity has the blessing of some high academic champions, according to Vincent John. These people have agreed to act as ambassadors for better purchasing, spreading the word that compliance to contracts and adherence to their processes pay dividends for the academic community, such as more money to spend on research and students.
The five-year plan will be part of the ambassadors' evidence that procurement takes itself seriously. Failure by purchasers to see the plan through will not only let down their own profession, but also those ambassadors who have taken on the purchasers' fight.