The role of digital procurement in the education sector

    Chun Jiao, Head of Education at Amazon Business UK and Ireland, makes the case for digital purchasing solutions.

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    Chun Jiao, Head of Education at Amazon Business UK and Ireland, makes the case for digital purchasing solutions.

    As with most public organisations, the education sector has been through a turbulent few years. Budget constraints and tightening regulations mean academic institutions have found themselves juggling competing priorities in their day-to-day purchasing: to cut costs while still meeting ever more stringent public sector standards. For example, while nine in ten (91%) UK schools had to reduce spend in at least one area last year, legislation like the upcoming Procurement Bill lists strategic procurement considerations such as sustainable sourcing and social value as somewhat non-negotiable priorities.[1]

    Due to factors outside of their control, and an ongoing need to maintain best practices, education institutions are having to do more with less. At the end of the day, despite these other factors, their number one priority is still having the right supplies in order to provide students with the best education they can. For example, without sufficient stationery supplies, day-to-day tasks like marking work or creating visual displays would be impossible. Of course, this is a situation all teachers hope to avoid. How can they find a more streamlined digital procurement strategy in place that takes the trials of purchasing off the plate of educators, freeing them up to focus on their students?

    Managing building pressures 

    In the ever-challenging world of public sector funding, budget constraints often leave organisations searching for solutions to help manage expenses. With schools and universities having to tighten their purse strings and pressures building every year, leadership teams have to squeeze as much as they can from the little that they’ve got. Procurement is a crucial player in this game, and digital transformation in this area holds the key to making every penny count. 

    With shifting syllabuses, growing student bodies and advancements in teaching technologies, the purchasing needs of the education sector are often unpredictable. Different education departments often require completely varying supplies to teach their students, with needs ranging from Bunsen burners to basketballs. This makes having an annual benchmark for supplies very difficult, which is where digital procurement steps in. Digital procurement tools like automated purchasing mean institutions are able to enjoy a shopping experience which is reliable and adaptable. Departments are able to choose next-day delivery to get supplies to their doorstep overnight, making sure teachers and students get whatever they need, whenever they need it. Plus, it frees up valuable time for teachers to focus on teaching instead of dealing with unnecessary paperwork and administrative tasks. 

    Importantly, digital procurement solutions offer this benefit across a huge range of products. Traditionally, procurement teams would have had to navigate through a complex web of supplier relationships, catalogues and purchase orders to access the supplies they need, which could be both time-consuming and overwhelming. However, by digitalising this process, they can access one platform that brings together a marketplace of vendors, allowing them to easily purchase the products they need in a cost-effective and efficient way.  

    However, even with fast and efficient buying systems in place, cost may still be a pain point for some. According to research from 4C Associates, the role of digitalisation in transforming public sector procurement processes is far reaching and can enable organisations to cut costs by up to 30%.[2] One example of this in action is the collaboration between Amazon and the Yorkshire Purchasing Organisation (YPO). The tech-enabled partnership provides a practical cost-cutting solution for organisations, allowing customers to access a credit facility if they’d rather pay on invoice. The collaboration allows customers to complete their list of purchasing requirements in one convenient place without racking up unnecessary spend. With effective solutions such as these at their fingertips, academic institutions unlock a new level of financial control. 

    Conquering regulatory compliance 

    Evidently, digital procurement can help with cutting costs and boosting efficiency, but when it comes to budgeting and spending public money, academic institutions still have to play by some particularly specific rules. When going through the procurement process, institutions are expected to seek guidance from a local authority, multi-academy trust or diocese before making any purchases as they may own the procurement responsibility for certain supplies. Regulation also applies at a national level, with the Department for Education in the UK providing guidelines on how schools should be purchasing through existing pre-approved framework agreements.[3]

    With oversight from every possible angle, it’s clear that, from nurseries to universities, the countless purchases needed to support pupils of every age must be done in a transparent and compliant way. Education institutions need solutions tailored to their needs, and digital procurement provides a great way to do this. To take one example, last year Amazon Business launched the ‘Teachers Tail Spend’ solution set to support the specific needs of a group of 52 schools in the UK. The solution delivers an easy-to-use process where teachers can purchase classroom equipment directly in line with public sector requirements. Tools such as these help to reduce purchasing time to a matter of minutes, as there’s no need to scroll through thousands of potential suppliers to get what they need in a cost-effective and compliant way.  

    Education organisations can also ensure regulatory compliance by working with buying and selling platforms that have collaborated with relevant industry bodies, such as Amazon Business with NEUPC, the higher education purchasing consortium,. NEUPC teamed up with Amazon Business to deliver a digital marketplace that ensures public sector spending is fully compliant with all regulations.  Collaborations such as these provide education institutions with straightforward access to a market pathway for a wide range of products they can purchase quickly, seamlessly and compliantly. They also provide benefits over legacy procurement practices, which traditionally reduce the overall efficiency of the process as systems often encounter difficulties due to their reliance on manual intervention. This increases the likelihood of human error and uses up crucial administrative time that could be much better spent on the students. 

    With budget constraints, changing demands and increasing regulations, it’s clear that the education sector needs to be able to adapt swiftly and efficiently. Leveraging flexible digital procurement tools and partnerships can help to deliver this. Taking a proactive approach, educational institutions can shift their focus away from the challenges of procurement and redirect it towards what truly matters – educating the next generation.

    Chun Jiao is Head of Education for Amazon Business UK&I, helping education customers streamline their procurement processes through Amazon Business’ solutions to provide greater control, visibility and compliance. Previously, she was a consultant at C Space.

    1https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1137536/School_and_college_panel_November_report.pdfhttps://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/cbp-9402/  

    The role of digital in public sector procurement – 4C Associates

    3 Buying procedures and procurement law for schools – Find the right way to buy – Guidance – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)