Business software vendors such as Oracle and SAP are showing an increasingly serious interest in the higher education market. Besides financial and human resources packages, they are now offering specialised programs developed in partnership with universities and designed to suit higher education institutions worldwide.
In Blackpool last week, Oracle, the world's second largest software company, unveiled the Oracle Student System to university and college information systems managers. In the same week SAP, Germany's leading software company, announced that the universities of Northumbria and Leicester have gone live with SAP systems in time to replace software that may have harboured the millennium bug.
Administration has become part of higher education's public face. It is faster and more economical if students can check their credits or sign up for a course at a screen, without involving staff. "As it becomes more self-service, you are going to touch the software," said Stuart Turner, Oracle's UK vice-president for public services.
If a university is a business, the student system is its customer database. Before admission, administrators can trawl through applicants for those who fit the profile of a successful student. Link the student system to finance, timetabling, assessment and teaching and learning, and every student can have their own online fees and rent accounts, work diary and academic record.
"Higher education organisations are having to reinvent themselves as they move to a new business environment," Mr Turner said. "They can reduce cost at the same time as improving service. The student system is one of the final pieces in our jigsaw to en-able them to do that."
Three years ago Oracle appeared to have lost interest in specialist software for higher education. It sold its UK products to Symmetry, a start-up staffed largely by former Oracle employees. Symmetry staff were taken aback when Oracle re-entered the market with a program that keeps track of research grant payments and the regular reports that funders demand.
Imperial College and University College London were early customers for the system.
Oracle found a student system at Deakin University, which had developed it on behalf of a group of Australian institutions. Since January, more than 40 developers at Redwood Shores, California, have been reworking the Australian product. For the UK market they incorporated Higher Education Statistics Agency reporting and Universities and Colleges Admissions Service procedures. All major functions can now be accessed from a web browser.
By autumn 2000 the product could be available in up to 28 languages. According to Mollie Smilie, who heads Oracle's 200-strong public sector development team, there will not be separate national versions. "Global requirements are going into the core product," she said.
SAP also has a student system, which has been under development at the University of Newcastle and two overseas campuses since 1997 and was unveiled in April. With Newcastle, Capetown and Arizona State University as pilot sites, SAP's developers in Walldorf, Germany, are building a global system that can be customised.
SAP's "level two" student system, set for controlled release next month, will go head-to-head with Oracle. Accessible from any web browser, it will be self-service for students and employees. For the UK, it will support the UCAS admissions process.
Newcastle's finances, human resources, student office and registrar's office have been running on SAP software since April. In that time, according to pro vice-chancellor John Goddard, "nothing has gone wrong in a technical sense". He hopes managers can now begin to exploit the information the system provides.
SAP's software is sometimes criticised as rigid. Professor Goddard counters that it embodies "best business practice" and has played a healthy role by confronting the university with important policy decisions. As a result, all research overheads are now posted monthly in a consistent way and all personal expenses are reimbursed through the payroll.
Consistency is enforced because the system holds only one set of financial figures. Transactions between university departments have been formalised. The internal trading system developed at Newcastle has been adopted by SAP customer Warwick University.
A website provisionally known as the UK Higher Education Mall is scheduled to launch next year, offering a detailed, unbiased guide to the sector. To obtain accurate and timely information it will almost certainly have to plug directly into each institution's administration systems. The "mall" will be a powerful argument for standardising those systems - easier if one software vendor were to dominate the administration market.
Universities would not welcome a monopoly and in any case no clear winner has emerged. In North America, the leader is SCT, with its Banner2000 range of software, which allows students and others to serve themselves via the web. SCT owns 60 per cent of Campus Pipeline, a company that builds web portals for universities and sells advertising on them.
SCT has made sales to a handful of UK universities, including Birmingham, Liverpool and Leeds. Last month Imperial College bought an SCT system for maintaining contact with alumni and raising funds from them. "With one-third of our alumni overseas in 146 countries, we are in need of a web-oriented solution," said Igor Aleksander, pro rector for external relations.
The biggest software company of all has yet to show its hand. After a US court found that it has behaved monopolistically, Microsoft may now be compelled to go in search of new markets. A hint that one of those markets might be higher education administration came last month when Microsoft launched its I-Campus research programme with a $25 million investment at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.