Universities warned about the pitfalls of outsourcing

Contracting out staff and student services risks reducing academic control. John Gill reports

April 3, 2008

Universities risk losing control over staff recruitment, their reputations and the student experience as they outsource services and fail to keep pace with change.

That is the view of Rosemary Stamp, a higher education consultant, who led a session at the Association of University Administrators conference in York this week on the challenges facing the sector over the next decade.

The question of control is a major issue in two key areas, she told Times Higher Education, "control that universities give up, and control that they haven't got because technology has outstripped the way they operate".

An example of the former is the outsourcing of services including the provision of course modules to private-sector providers.

"Universities are outsourcing more and more services, and if you outsource your accommodation or how you run your IT, it has a direct impact on the student experience, which is a major differentiator for higher education," she said.

"What is perhaps surprising is that we've found that when universities outsource things such as teaching and learning provision, the effect is to make students feel, 'gosh that's great', and then things don't match up to that when they get back into the higher education system."

The outsourcing of services was best received by students, she said, when it involved organisations with more "agility" than universities that are better able to respond to what students want.

"What that means is that the experience that people have within higher education moves beyond universities' control," Ms Stamp said.

"We need to understand the opportunities, because outsourcing often makes good business sense, but also to be aware of not selling off the family silver."

A second area where universities face challenges in retaining control is over their reputations as they struggle to keep pace with the so-called Google generation, which uses the web as the first port of call for information.

"Higher education has no control over the blog attitude, where anyone can go online and say whatever they want about you," she said.

"This interface between what other people say about you and what you say about yourself is going to be a major resource issue in the future, because you're going to have to be monitoring or managing it, and a lot of organisations are only just waking up to that.

"To use an example from another sector, you can be a great hotel and say wonderful things about yourself, but there's always going to be a website such as TripAdvisor where people can say what they really think of you."

The seminar also covered the issue of staff recruitment and retention, which Ms Stamp predicted would be "one of the biggest challenges of the next ten years".

She added: "Whether they are academics or professional administrators, in a global staff recruitment market this agenda is going to get much more difficult."

"Increasingly universities are trying to lure people in from other sectors to skill up on the really key areas that will be important to universities in the future - people with good commercial experience running human resources, internal communications to get people to buy into the strategic objectives, those kind of issues.

"It's an absolute jungle out there in terms of recruiting academic staff - it is a massive global operation now. Some universities are really up against it trying to secure the right people to influence things like global league tables," Ms Stamp said.

"It matters for all institutions. Whether they are actually fit to lure the right staff to deliver on their strategic agenda, and to keep them, is a major concern for the future."

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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