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Purchasing power: how university procurement teams benefit students and society

The way universities deliver and demonstrate value has never been so prominent in discussions about higher education. In the Office for Students, the sector now has a regulator with a keen eye on how institutions provide value for money to students, while parliament has also shown heightened interest of late, with the education select committee reporting on the subject in October. And of course, value for money will undoubtedly be a core concern for the Augar Review when it reports later this year.

'Value for money' is, however, a contested concept, and one that is difficult to define. Depending on the setting it is invariably used to explain return on investment for graduates (monetary and otherwise), the wider impact that universities have on their communities, or very simply, a measure of how money is spent in institutions. In reality, a singular definition would need to incorporate all of these things; but a common and largely unsung area underpinning it all is university procurement – or how institutions purchase goods and services.

Data gathered during the recent procurement value survey (PVS) managed by the Higher Education Procurement Association (HEPA), provides clear insight into the value of university purchasing teams. Information submitted by 89 universities for the year ending July 2018 revealed gross efficiencies of £316 million against a total spend of £7.7 billion – on average, a return of £3.5 million for each university. These savings are reinvested into world-class teaching and facilities and help to ensure that institutions get the most out of the money they receive – particularly from students.

Alongside these material impacts, the procurement process itself can add value for students. Examples reported in the survey this year include the involving of student representatives on tender assessment panels, collaborative working with students' unions on major projects such as rebrands, and the safeguarding against unethical practices in procurement and supply chain management to ensure the ethos and aspirations of the wider student community are reflected in university purchasing.

And it's not just students that stand to gain. Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) also benefit enormously from effective university purchasing, with the average university currently spending 32% of its impactable spend with SMEs. In 2017–18 this accounted for a whopping £1.5 billion, – an amount expected to rise as reporting becomes more regular and accurate – meaning that universities are well on the way to meeting the UK government's target of £1 in every £3 being spent with SMEs by 2022. When considered alongside the ready supply of highly-skilled graduates, the economic value of universities to their regions is clear to see.

As a recent report1 from my own institution shows, universities can also drive real social value for their local communities through their procurement and supply chains.

For example, since 2012 we have worked with Northampton-based logistics business, Goodwill Solutions, who have helped over 300 ex-offenders back into paid employment through projects such as archiving services and recycling disused furniture for the university.

With procurement teams costing on average just 0.4% of the total impactable spend of an institution, investment in effective procurement is demonstrably money well spent. Universities have proven themselves to be adept at this too, helping to set a benchmark for other sectors. It will be important not to lose sight of this good news story as the value and efficiency of what universities do continues to be scrutinised.


Notes

1. How to do good stuff when buying things: a handbook for higher education institutions, University of Northampton, 2018

To access the publication, and the full procurement value survey which breaks down the data by institution size, please contact emma@hepa.ac.uk.

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