There has been a noticeable trend across higher education recently, where students are behaving more like customers. It’s hardly surprising when they’re shelling out thousands of pounds in fees (and a good deal more in living costs) to be there.
The net result is universities have to work harder to not only attract students but also keep them happy once they’ve arrived. When you have two or even three universities in the same city – perhaps five or six between neighbouring cities – competition is fierce. And yet the current economic climate also demands these competitors collaborate on their procurement wherever possible to get maximum value for money.
Universities have been challenged to make efficiency savings and drive better value for money by collaborating on 30 per cent of their non-pay spend; a figure they’re currently a long way short of. Many institutions already work together on numerous areas of purchasing – a task made easier by regional purchasing consortia. But there remains a culture that’s resistant to collaboration.
It’s important to bear in mind the complexity of procurement in higher education, which can cover everything from toilet rolls to highly specialised scientific equipment. So it comes down to understanding when it’s appropriate to work collaboratively and when it’s not. A good example is something all universities need to produce – prospectuses. A prospectus is an important tool to promote the institution and differentiate it from others so it wouldn’t be advisable for a group of universities to all use the same graphic designer. But there’s no reason why they shouldn’t collaborate on getting the best deal for printing.
Regional purchasing consortia can drive the collaboration agenda by highlighting the benefits, by making it easier to jointly purchase ‘bread and butter’ goods and services (like printing) and by helping universities to ensure they comply with legislation. Using consortia also frees up time for universities to focus on strategic procurement that can maximise social value and boost local economies.
Collaborative procurement isn’t simply about buying together and it shouldn’t be mistaken for throwing everything into one big purchasing exercise, which can disadvantage smaller suppliers and could even distort the market by reducing the number of potential bidders for the requirement. Realising the full potential of collaboration means sharing knowledge, streamlining processes and ultimately not reinventing the wheel every time a new procurement challenge arises.
☛ Florence Gregg is a former head of purchasing at Queen’s University Belfast and is now a leading procurement consultant. She will be speaking at the Conference on University Purchasing (COUP) hosted by North Western Universities Purchasing Consortium in Liverpool on 11 September.