Changing face of procurement in higher education

By Fiona Wilkins, Corporate Communications Manager

University students

Gillian Askew, Head of Procurement at YPO, takes a closer look at how social and political shifts are impacting procurement processes in the higher education sector and evaluates what good procurement now looks like within UK universities...

As budget cuts increase and uncertainty surrounding Brexit grows, pressure on service delivery within the higher education sector is reaching an all-time high. We are seeing procurement teams continually adapting and transforming in order that they remain a credible partner to organisational achievement: they are required to deliver both financial benefits as well as provide a positive contribution to the communities in which they serve.

As such, it seems procurement is becoming a profession which needs to be agile, sympathetic and respectful of these, and many other factors.

However, recent research carried out by YPO* has revealed that despite these external influences - which affect almost all university departments - the barriers to success for procurement teams remain largely the same, indicating a lack of awareness and understanding of the value procurement adds to the overall success of an organisation. With this in mind, it is apparent that the benefits of raising procurement’s profile in higher education are clear and potentially substantial.

The role of collaboration

Our research shows that despite the complexities of an uncertain post-Brexit economy, and the fact that procurement is highly-governed in an intricate regulatory environment, there is still strong support for local economies as well as a commitment to ensure accessibility to small and medium enterprises. Collaboration - at both national and regional level - seems to be just one way that teams can elevate the value to procurement within their institutions.

The survey found four in five universities collaborate regionally and a further seven out of ten collaborate nationally. When asked what drives collaboration and why it is important, respondents cited many examples including convenience, optimum value for money, networking opportunities, sharing good practice, promoting sustainable approaches and skills development, to name a few.

Strategic approaches

The report shows that 95 per cent of universities have a procurement strategy in place which illustrates that good procurement practice is promoted organisation-wide. The two preferred procurement routes were found to be framework agreements and contracting opportunities, with 83 per cent of participants considering both.

In terms of priorities for a university in any procurement exercise, the biggest driver is meeting project aims and contributing to wider university goals (33 per cent). Value for money was a lesser focus at 28 per cent whilst quality of product and service was only considered a priority by 13 per cent of universities.

But what strategic value can procurement teams bring to the organisation as a whole?

Our research shows that in most cases, teams in higher education are largely involved at a low level of spend meaning their ability to influence wider business and operational strategies is limited as they focus on managing a busy commercial environment which centres around a continuous loop of tendering and contracting activity.

If focus is leaning towards being commercially stringent, how do we know what good procurement looks like? At a time of such prevalent political and social change, it seems the answer is a moving target as procurement teams continually adapt and transform.

What higher education procurement teams can do, though, is continually self-assess how they are delivering at both a local and organisational level through a robust and effective collaborative approach.

The challenges procurement teams in higher education face are only likely to get tougher so by assessing and evaluating their impact in delivering sustainable student value, they will gradually build a clearer picture of their role and value.

Please contact [email protected] or [email protected] if you would like a copy of the report.

Research provided by our survey partners iGov.