How to marry millions of data

April 3, 1998

Jim Wheelan reports on a joint project to collect useful information to improve estates management

Higher education spent Pounds 2 billion on estates in 1995-96 - almost a fifth of total expenditure. Clearly, any ways in which the management of this asset can be improved will have knock-on benefits to the general operation of institutions.

Management practice has come under scrutiny in the past few years. The Dearing report on higher education proposed that institutions should develop effective integrated management information systems.

In recognition of this, 35 "sponsor" institutions, ranging from small specialist institutions to multi-site redbrick universities, are helping build a databank on estate management in a joint project with the funding councils. Expected to report in the autumn, support has also come from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, the Association of University Directors of Estates and the Standing Conference of Principals.

John Rushforth, head of estates at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, said the information collated would help to improve performance, "but there will be no league tables".

Operational Property Databank and Grimley International Property Advisers are gathering the information together. They will work with the funding councils and the sponsors to develop estate-related indicators that can be assembled mainly from existing data sources.

The study's main aim is to develop a common set of management statistics and a methodology for comparing the full range of estates' management activities. Improvements in efficiency, effectiveness and value-for-money can only assist institutions in carrying out their primary role, learning, more productively.

The funding councils and other groups carried out earlier studies, including the Joint Performance Indicators Working Group (now taken forward by the Higher Education Management Statistics Group), the Pearce report and estate strategy returns.

The indicators these studies produced have been useful, but the information has generally either been collected for specific purposes or relates only to parts of the sector. The indicators include size, value and condition of the estate, its running costs and its fitness for purpose.

Project director Christopher Hedley of Operational Property Databank says: "We want to find out which indicators could and should be used to help improve the performance of institutions' estates from a business perspective." To achieve this the project will involve a combination of questionnaires, detailed site visits, discussion seminars and some quite detailed numerical and qualitative analysis. "This is a good opportunity for the sector to develop a consistent, usable and valuable set of estate-related management indicators. These indicators will be a major asset to institutions as part of their management function," says Mr Hedley.

If successful, the project could lead to the establishment of estate management performance indicators across the sector. This would benefit higher education by identifying areas of best practice, potential under-resourcing and cost-saving. Greater awareness of estates management and the part that it plays in education delivery is the pay-off. The project will be reporting in the autumn and then the appropriateness of extending the work across all the sector will be considered. This is a major opportunity for securing benefits to the sector.

Jim Wheelan is a researcher at Grimley International Property Advisers.

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