A key ambition we have at the University is to grow and be able to offer our transformational education to 20,000 students. Alongside our established undergraduate and postgraduate opportunities, we now provide an ever more diverse range of flexible products to help drive growth and sustainability. Coming out of a pandemic we have also become more reliant on student systems to support this growth and an appreciation of the benefits of a robust digital infrastructure.  

Achieving our ambitions relies on providing an enabling infrastructure that allows teams across the university to provide efficient and effective support to all students in their journey at Essex. Technology is integral to the success of that mission, and effective digital academic systems is a key component in our infrastructure. Unfortunately, our current ageing Essex student information system (ESIS) has limitations and the effect of this is seen in the amount of manual work still being undertaken and the ‘sticking plasters’ that we have in place to keep processes running. I have had the opportunity to sit with many of you and heard how these impact on your day-to-day roles, taking time away from the work that provides real value to students.  

Work to-date 

The Academic Systems Enhancement Programme (ASEP) was approved in 2023 to assess how we can make a step-change to the usability of our student systems. As part of the initial phase, we worked with a team of technology consultants from BJSS who have experience in supporting Universities to undertake reviews and identify the best options for their systems approach. Through interviews and assessments of our current academic systems they have provided a recommended roadmap based on our needs for the future and wider sector considerations. From this work it is clear we need more than the small tactical changes to deliver the capabilities needed and this is now the focus for ASEP.  

The approach 

Our approach in ASEP will be to offer incremental and structured step-changes as there is a dual challenge to enhance, indeed replace, existing systems such as ESIS as well as to offer other digital products to meet new opportunities such as flexible product challenges. It's also important for me as Programme Lead to deliver tangible benefits to frontline staff who are supporting different student cohorts across October and January starts. Perspectives from across the HE sector indicate that ‘big bang’ student record system implementations rarely deliver a basket of benefits all at once as they are inevitably so complex, resource hungry and completely interlinked with business as usual operations.  

In the current phase of work we will again be working with BJSS, who will be supporting our internal programme team through to the development of a business case to be ready by Autumn 2023. This will outline the changes we are looking to make together with the timelines for change.  

  1. The programme scope will cover:    
    Student Systems Architecture – Looking to the future we need to have technical architecture that ensures we can deliver real long-term change, reducing complexity and improve flexibility and scalability. 
  2. A roadmap to replace ESIS, our student information system – This is central to the programme of work and we will be undertaking feasibility studies of how we move away from the old system and to a model based on Microsoft Dynamics. Microsoft Dynamics is much more than a CRM system, it’s a clever piece of technology that offers configurable screens that are designed with a user in mind plus the technical ability to draw and send data to relational databases which store all the information on a student. If you want to conceptualize it, I think of Microsoft Dynamics as the jam in a sandwich with the bread being the user and the database.
  3. Our Results Processing System (RPS) is known to be a key priority area and we are looking at how we can replace the current system to reduce manual activities and complexity in processes.
  4. Looking how we can be more effective in how we operate our systems and ensuring we improve the way we govern and update our student systems so that we can be more proactive and responsive to changes in the future. 

Next steps

Over the next few weeks, we’ll start to unpack these workstreams and will share more about what this change could provide. This part of the programme will conclude in October 2023 with a business case that outlines the options for the next phase of investment in student systems support.  

To support every student from every background to achieve outstanding outcomes we know it is important to support every member of staff with technology that enables them.  I believe that this programme is a critical and positive step towards improving our operations and providing a better experience for our staff and students. We recognise that this work will impact on many staff so we will be keeping you updated on the work over the coming months.

If you do have any questions or comments, you can contact the programme team: asep@essex.ac.uk.