University Procurement – maturing nicely, COUP is a success

I was speaking last week at COUP, the national Conference on University Procurement,  in Liverpool, hosted by the North-Western Universities Procurement Consortium (NWUPC).

The event stretched over two full days, and I couldn't make  it from start to finish, but I saw enough to know it was a very successful event, with over 300 delegates and a strong supplier representation in terms of the associated exhibition  - around 80 firms there, although I suspect there was a bit of strong-arming by the various consortia to get their framework suppliers to contribute!

The venue was the BT Convention Centre in the redeveloped docks area, an amazing collection now of galleries, bars, restaurants, apartments, with the Mersey providing an impressive backdrop. The facilities were great - the only question was whether it was almost too big. Even with 300 delegates, we rattled around a little in it, so there was perhaps a little lost in terms of the chance meetings with folk that you get in a more intimate venue.

Anyway, back to the event. Universities are wrestling with a number of issues. Like all public organisations, costs are an issue, although this is perhaps less keenly felt than elsewhere in the public sector - funding is not as tight in this sector compared to much of local or central government perhaps.

The more progressive procurement people and teams are increasingly thinking about how they can contribute to their institutions competitive positioning – not just cost-cutting, but how can suppliers help to attract more and better students (and indeed academics and teachers)?  At the same time, cost management is still a challenge in an environment populated with academics, who tend to have pretty strong views about the goods and services they want to receive! There are real parallels with hospital procurement there.

Nick Petford (see pic above) gave the keynote address. He is Vice Chancellor at the University of Northampton and Chair of Procurement UK – the newly formed national organisation launched to drive forward the procurement agenda in higher education. He’s a strong supporter of procurement, but has also raised a few hackles with his recent comments, where he has been critical of current procurement in the sector. He's probably doing it for the right reasons - to emphasise the need for improvement - but some heads of procurement who actually run pretty sophisticated operations aren't too impressed!

We also had an interesting discussion after my presentation around the value of setting targets. The sector has set itself a target for 30% of spend to be collaborative by 2015, and I was asked whether I thought that sort of target is useful. I gave a good politicians answer, "it depends on the situation and it's value may change over time". One delegate pointed out that targets could just lead to people "gaming" the system, as we've seen too often with SME targets and similar examples. On the other hand, setting targets can focus busy minds on  a particular topic. It's a good question - and applies to all sorts of target - so we'll come back to it another time.

The keynote on day two was Paul Cousins, Professor of Operations Management at Manchester University Business School - an excellent presentation, the hour went very quickly, and we'll cover that in more detail shortly. But all in all, a very successful event, and a sector where procurement is continuing to make positive strides. Very well done to Mike Haslin, Paul Tomany, the team from NWUPC and everyone involved.

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  1. Dave Sheldon:

    Maybe, like the Cabinet Office, the 30% target should be an aspiration.

    Like most sectors there is both good and bad procurment within HE, with much of it down to the support given at the top of the organisation to setting up a procurement team with the necessary resources. This would allow Procurement to undertake more than the minimum necessary compliance with rules and regulations.

    Sorry not to see you there Peter but I was attending a very interesting seminar by Dr Jo Meehan on Understanding Power: leveraging beyond spend.

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