Online learning tops university IT wish lists

Online learning tools have been ranked as the most important technology for British universities, proving twice as popular than any other type of tech.

A new survey carried out by Jisc and ucisa, also finds that 68% of higher education (HE) digital leaders feel the effective use of this technology is key to digital transformation projects, with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning in joint second (32%). Improving student experience is the biggest driver for tech adoption (91%), above improving workforce productivity (71%), saving costs across the organisation (41%) and improving staff morale (11%).

The Digital leadership in HE report also highlights the progress made by universities in strategic digital transformation. More than half (53%) have a digital strategy in place, while a further 21% stated their strategy is integrated with others in the organisation.

There are barriers that need to be overcome before digital technologies are embraced at UK universities, however. Organisational culture was touted as the top challenge (70%), followed by financial constraints (48%) and a lack of capability or capacity in IT (41%).

For online learning, some raise concerns that such tools undermine the worth of a physical campus, but almost half (48%) of academic staff have digital tools embedded into their ways of working.

Josh Fry, Director of Cloud at Jisc, commented: “It’s heartening to see HE institutions throughout the UK increasingly making progress with their digital strategies. I truly believe that the technology priorities recognised in the report – such as online learning, AI and machine learning – can result in improved experiences and greater accessibility for a wider range of students, whilst continuing to make the UK the most digitally advanced education and research nation in the world.

“Innovation must have a purpose, and it is important to take a whole-campus approach to a digital strategy before implementing new tools; technology initiatives work much better when aligned with an organisation’s business and teaching and learning strategy. Digital leaders in HE must work out how ‘disruptive’ technologies can be introduced into methods of working in a way that encourages engagement from academic and support staff.”

Trevor Baxter, IT Solutions Director at King’s College London highlighted that learning tools such as MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), Virtual Reality, Mixed Reality and 3D are beneficial for learning purposes. He said: “We need to start looking into these technologies more because if we don’t, we can actually lose students coming from abroad to study in our universities.”

John Beaver, Director of IT Services at Bath Spa University, added: “For us, AI is a big interest, both as a technology that we may apply for student experience purposes, such as an AI that might find books of interest in the library for a student knowing what they’re doing or recommend particular modules or courses that may be of interest to them.”

Peter Tinson, Executive Director at ucisa, said: “In the age of Education 4.0, when we must constantly adapt to prepare our students for the changing landscape of the job market, it’s critical that universities continue on their digital transformation journeys in order to ensure the premium experience student expect. This report highlights some really exciting examples to follow, and we look forward to hearing more in the coming weeks and months.”

Prospects for Open Banking

David Firth, head of product for TransUnion Open Banking, talks
to CCRMagazine about what lies ahead.

How will Open Banking bring new data to the industry?

Open Banking paves the way for a data revolution, allowing consumers to quickly and securely share their banking information with accredited third parties. This new data will have a significant impact on how consumers apply for financial products in the future, and how businesses use this data to offer improved services and carry out more detailed affordability and creditworthiness assessments, ensuring that products are appropriate and sustainable.

Consumers can now login directly with their bank to grant consent for FCA-registered third parties to access their financial information. This information is in a digital format, rather than a printed or a PDF statement, and, therefore, can be automatically categorised, so that creditworthiness and affordability assessments are much quicker, or even automated.

As Open Banking becomes more widely adopted across the lending industry, we may see it start to become commonplace during those customer journeys that do not fit the norm, such as consumers with a thin credit file, where a decision cannot be made using the standard lending policies. In the future, we may also see Open Banking form a core part of the standard application process because the data can be used to better ensure products are suitable and sustainable for consumers.

What technical innovations will be needed to allow that to happen?

Open Banking relies heavily on governance and standards that are coordinated by the Open Banking Implementation Entity (OBIE), which has been a significant programme of collaborative work across banks and third parties.

Beyond the industry standards, there are a number of technical innovations that are required to ensure Open Banking can be used to its full potential. Key to this is the creation of a streamlined consumer journey and experience that guides users through the consent, bank authentication, and authorisation journey. The fundamental next step is where the industry will see a focus of innovation over the coming years, focusing on how the consumer’s data is processed to ensure accuracy and depths of insight.

The data returned through Open Banking is in a machine readable, but raw format. It must be categorised so we can understand what each line of data means in as much detail as is necessary. Once understood, it must then be reviewed against affordability and creditworthiness rules set to help inform a lending decision. This must all be done within a number of seconds, and with utmost accuracy to ensure a fair and suitable outcome is reached.

Which sectors have been the quickest to adapt to the new possibilities and why?

As is often the case, it is not necessarily a specific sector that is moving faster, but rather fast technology adopters across a number of sectors. These fast movers will tend to be the more cutting-edge companies who prioritise new technology developments and want to utilise them as soon as possible, to realise the range of benefits they bring.

Our experience shows that, unsurprisingly, the lending industry and surrounding sectors have a keen interest in Open Banking. This was confirmed in the research we conducted with Forrester Consulting which showed that eight out of 10 financial firms are either adopting or planning to adopt Open Banking, or are interested in doing so. We expect 2019 to be a transformational year for Open Banking as many more companies adopt and trial new services.

What do the customers think of this, and how should the industry seek to educate them?

Open Banking is largely unknown to consumers at the moment, as our own consumer poll illustrated, with one in four saying they had not heard of it. This is not overly surprising. Consumers are often unaware of the underlying technology or services that are powering their experiences or journeys. They do, however, respond to adopting new services if the benefits and value exchange are clear, so there needs to be greater awareness of these.

There are substantial benefits for firms in adopting Open Banking, due to processing efficiencies or better decisioning, but there are also a range of consumer benefits. These include quicker application journeys and the availability of a wider selection of products and services. The benefits realised by both consumers and businesses will see a gradual adoption of Open Banking, and it will become a mainstream process in the years to come, assuming that the benefits exchange remains the focus.

UK small businesses plan ahead despite Brexit paralysis

More than two in three (68%) small business owners have put plans in place to grow their business over the next three months – and even 59% those that fear they will struggle to survive in an uncertain year are working on positive plans to turn their business around – according to new research from Hitachi Capital Business Finance.

The findings come at a time when the proportion of UK small businesses predicting growth has hit a five-year low (down from 39% to 34%). Nonetheless, despite prolonged Brexit uncertainty, the new Hitachi data reveals a tenacity and determination among the UK small business community to keep calm and carry on, even through an unprecedented period of political and economic change for the country at large.

The Hitachi data also suggests it is Britain’s youngest small businesses that are the most can-do in putting growth plans in place for the first three months of 2019. Overall, 87% of business owners aged under 35 have been working on new growth plans (compared to 55% of those aged 55 or over). Further, the UK’s youngest businesses (those trading for less than five years) were most assertive in working on new growth initiatives (71%). With London and Manchester growing as the UK’s top tech hubs (and cities for tech jobs), the Hitachi research also noted that London (78%) and the North West (71%) were the regions where small businesses were most likely to be tackling Brexit uncertainty with proactive growth plans.

What are small businesses prioritising to achieve growth?
As part of the latest instalment of Hitachi Capital Business Barometer, which tracks small business outlook and confidence over time, Hitachi asked a nationally representative sample of 1,177 small business decision makers which initiatives they were considering in order to achieve growth in the three months to April 2019. The results paint a picture of what the small business community will be prioritising during the critical Brexit transition period in the weeks ahead.

Keep costs down and carry on
The number one issue for small businesses was controlling fixed costs. During a period of rising rents, business rate hikes and a weak pound, 41% of respondents said cost control was a top priority to help their business grow in uncertain times. As the perceived importance of cost control hits a five-year high, a further 18% of respondents said they intended to tackle late payment. Despite recent moves by the Government to tackle this issue, there is no evidence that anything as dampened this issue for small business owners. Concern over tackling late payment is at its highest level since the start of 2017.

Cashflow remains king
Improving cash flow has also hit a five-year high as a priority for small businesses to tackle (22%). The perceived need to tackle this issue was most prevalent in the manufacturing (40%), distribution (38%) real estate (38%) and retail (33%) sectors. It was also a bigger issue among larger SMEs with a turnover of £10 million or more – ventures that have more complex infrastructures and bigger cost bases to manage.

Expanding the business footprint
Expanding into new overseas markets (16%), hiring more people (15%) and investing in new equipment (12%) were all popular initiatives to secure growth – although in all these areas there was a slight dip on 2018, suggesting some small businesses could be putting on hold physical expansion plans until there is greater certainty on the Brexit outcome.

Looking an industry sectors, small businesses in agriculture were most likely to be planning to invest in new equipment (31%). Expansion into new overseas markets was led by the IT and telecoms sector (49%) and enterprises in the media and marketing sector (34%). Small businesses in the IT and telecoms sector were also those most likely to be hiring new staff in the months ahead (35%).

Gavin Wraith-Carter, Managing Director at Hitachi Capital Business Finance, commented: “We are all living with political and economic uncertainty at the moment – and getting used to living with it will become the new norm for most businesses in 2019. It is heartening to see so many small businesses going towards uncertainty and seeing it as a time to improve their business, get it in better shape and achieve growth. For smaller businesses that can adapt faster and move quicker, 2019 could be a year of great opportunity.

“That said, finance is going to be key – possibly more so than ever. At a time of uncertainty, cutting fixed costs and strengthening cash flow will be a fundamental requirement for many small businesses in order to simply operate. Beyond that, getting the right kind of finance deals and support is crucial. More than ever before, small businesses need access to specialist financial solutions that can nurture growth and expansion without placing undue pressure on cashflow. At Hitachi Capital Business Finance we have a range of financial products that do just that. Our heritage is in manufacturing not banking and as a leading finance provider we are in the business of helping small businesses growth through all the stages of an economic cycle. It makes business sense to help business customers stay in business and grow – and we will be expanding our support for the small business sector during 2019.”

Portugal can use its economic recovery to build up resilience, says OECD

Portugal’s economic recovery is now well established, with GDP back to pre-crisis levels, a substantially lower unemployment rate and renewed investment and domestic consumption now joining a robust export sector to drive the economy. Efforts should now focus on reducing vulnerabilities to build resilience to future shocks, according to a new OECD report.

The latest OECD Economic Survey of Portugal forecasts GDP growth for 2019 and 2020 of 2.1% and 1.9% respectively. A drop in the unemployment rate to below 7% and rising earnings are driving consumption, adding to the economic lift from tourism and manufacturing, which were behind much of the 60% rise in export volumes that the Portuguese economy experienced from 2009 to 2017.

The Survey, presented in Lisbon by OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría alongside Portuguese Minister Assistant to the Prime Minister and for the Economy Pedro Siza Vieira and Deputy Minister and Secretary of State of Finance Ricardo Mourinho Félix, says Portugal should now take the opportunity to further shore up its public finances and banking sector.

To improve living standards and address still-high levels of poverty and inequality, Portugal should also aim to raise productivity, which has stalled in recent years, and get the long-term unemployed back into jobs.

At around 120% of GDP, Portugal’s public debt is falling but still among the highest in the OECD, limiting the country’s ability to respond to external shocks. Reducing the debt will require ongoing fiscal consolidation and further measures to offset the rising costs of ageing, including optimising health spending and further reducing pathways to early retirement. On the revenue side, the tax base could be broadened by reducing consumption tax exemptions and expanding the use of environmental taxes.

In the banking sector, there is a need to reduce the share of non-performing loans, which have declined since a peak in 2016 but remain high by OECD standards.

“Portugal has made tremendous progress restoring its economy to health since the financial crisis, but challenges remain in public finances and the financial sector,” said OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría. “The more Portugal can do to build up resilience while its economy is turning over nicely, the better it will be able to weather any future shock, ensuring the sustainability and inclusiveness of its economic recovery.”

External risks to Portugal’s outlook could include a slowdown in economic activity in major trading partners and future rises in Eurozone interest rates.

The Survey includes a thematic chapter on efficiency in the judicial system and its effect on productivity and economic performance. It notes that despite reforms to reduce the time needed to resolve a civil or commercial case in the court system, cases still typically run longer than in other OECD countries. The report also highlights the importance of continuing efforts to foster integrity and promote transparency in both the public and business sectors, as a key priority.

A second thematic chapter focuses on Portugal’s export performance. With exports still relatively low as a share of GDP, it recommends doing more to improve competitiveness on international markets, to open up to external trade and to participate in global value chains. This could include removing barriers to competition, to further encourage exporting firms to compete on price and quality, and making efforts to improve domestic infrastructure and skills.

Asset finance market grows by 7% in December

New figures released today by the Finance & Leasing Association (FLA) show that asset finance new business (primarily leasing and hire purchase) grew in December by 7% compared with the same month in 2017, and by 5% in Q4 2018 as a whole.

The plant and machinery finance and commercial vehicle finance sectors reported new business up in December by 29% and 18% respectively, compared with 2017, while new finance for IT equipment was up by 16% over the same period.

Commenting on the figures, Geraldine Kilkelly, Head of Research and Chief Economist at the FLA, said: “The asset finance market reported strong growth across many sectors in the final quarter of 2018 which contributed to a record level of new business in 2018 as a whole of almost £33 billion. This represented the eighth consecutive year of growth.

“The temporary increase in the Annual Investment Allowance for plant and machinery from 1 January 2019 announced in the last Budget should support further growth in this sector over the next few months.”

Comment – Europe: a policy crisis

While the Europeans have been busy trying to impose a miserable Withdrawal Agreement on the UK, a potential crisis has crept up on them of their own making. It is not clear that the eurozone could survive a new recession in its current form. This risk would be exacerbated by the fall-out of a no-deal Brexit which looks quite possible.

The presidency of Emmanuel Macron in France has run into trouble. He has had to water down his programme of reforms in the face of a popular uprising; furthermore, his grand project to reform the eurozone with Germany has been rebuffed by Berlin.

French GDP grew by just 0.3 percent in Q4 2018. This was less than expected and partly due to the waves of protests by the gilets jaunes across the country. Household spending and exports fell. The protests have forced President Macron to cancel planned tax increases on diesel and other fossil fuels and to offer a package of social spending which will undermine plans to keep the fiscal deficit within the three percent straightjacket this year. Monsieur Macron’s authority is diminishing at precisely the moment that Frau Merkel is becoming a lame duck Chancellor.

The German trade surplus, which stands at around eight percent of GDP, makes the country highly exposed to any downturn in global trade. When global trade plunged in Q4 2008 as a result of the financial crisis, the German economy lost more than five percent of its value.

Italy is in technical recession. Oxford Economics is forecasting that the country will grow by no more than 0.3 percent this year – a year in which the country will have to refinance debt equal to 17 percent of GDP. That will now take place without the ECB lending Italian banks funds at near-zero or negative rates which they can then invest in Italian government bonds (which yield nearly three percent). Just before Christmas the Italian government struck a deal with its EU overlords on the final shape of the 2019 budget, causing Italian bond yields to ease. But GDP-per-capita has not risen for 20 years and unemployment stands at 10.5 percent.

Moreover, Europe’s banks are looking extremely lacklustre. There is still no substantial banking union. The Italian banks in particular are locked in a doom loop whereby any default on government debt would automatically trigger the systemic collapse of the entire banking sector – one which would not be confined to Italy. High-yield credit spreads have surged in Europe in recent months.

The single currency has condemned most of Southern Europe to mass unemployment, weak wage growth and relentless austerity. Without QE there are very few policy tools left to address this. There is still no sign of a concerted effort to reform the eurozone’s structural flaws.

The final shape of Brexit could be the key factor that determines whether the eurozone tips into recession this year or not. There are already signs that Germany’s trade surplus with the UK is narrowing and that it is likely to fall further. A no-deal Brexit would be much worse for Germany than for the UK.

By Victor Hill, Macro Strategist at Master Investor

Universities lead public sector in cloud adoption, emergency services lag, report reveals

Universities top the public sector cloud rankings (36% store at least 10% of their data in the cloud), followed by public bodies (29%) and local authorities (21%). Emergency services lag behind at just 13. Meanwhile, 91% of public bodies still use on premise data centre storage, compared to just a third of local authorities (34%) – this rises to 61% of emergency services and 72% of universities.

The report by Eduserv (which recently merged with Jisc) and Socitm raises concerns that progress in the public sector still faces some serious challenges, six years on from the 2013 launch of the Government’s Cloud First strategy.

The study, based on data from 633 organisations and interviews with IT leaders across the public sector, identified variances in how many organisations have adopted a cloud infrastructure policy guidance or strategy. Public bodies lead with 79% having a strategy in place, followed by universities (55%). Meanwhile, just over half of emergency services (51%) and 44% of councils have taken similar steps.

The study also revealed that the motivations for cloud adoption vary by organisation: universities and public bodies are more drawn to scalability and agility, while emergency services put cost savings top.

Research paints a picture of how IT is being managed differently across types of organisation. The vast majority of universities primarily manage their IT in-house (96%), with only 1% outsourcing and 3% using a hybrid model. Public bodies are the organisations that use outsourced IT the most (20%). Meanwhile, emergency services are second in outsourcing IT at 16%, and local authorities a close third with 15%.

“As the report highlights, the journey will start on-premise and will almost certainly transition into a hybrid phase, possibly for quite some time, as many organisations are insufficiently mature in their IT management and information governance”, says Andy Powell, CTO at Eduserv.

“During their journey to the cloud, public sector organisation IT departments will need to refine their IT delivery models, based on an improved understanding of cloud technology and its potential, new governance models and opportunities of information and data. There is no better time to start thinking about those issues than right now.”

Martin Ferguson, Director of Policy and Research at Socitm, believes that “the rate of cloud adoption by public sector organisations reflects some serious challenges their IT leaders are currently facing with austerity’s budgetary cuts, lack of understanding by the leadership in other parts of the organisation and a need for culture change.”

“Cloud can be a useful vehicle to facilitate collaboration. It is important that public sector organisations understand that cloud technology is not the end result. Rather, it can be one of the enablers of better ways of working and more effective service delivery to achieve better outcomes for citizens.”

Consumer car finance market up 5% in October

New figures released today by the Finance & Leasing Association (FLA) show that new business volumes in the point of sale (POS) consumer new car finance market remained stable in October, compared with the same month in 2017, while the value of new business grew by 5% over the same period.

The percentage of private new car sales financed by FLA members through the POS was 91.0% in the twelve months to October.

The POS consumer used car finance market reported new business up in October 14% by value and 8% by volume, compared with the same month last year.

Commenting on the figures, Geraldine Kilkelly, Head of Research and Chief Economist at the FLA, said: “The performance of the POS consumer new car finance market in October continued to reflect trends in private new car sales.

“The consumer car finance market overall remains on track to report single-digit new business volumes growth in 2018 as a whole.”

London event to drive transformation in council collections

Credit management firm Intrum UK and its joint venture partner Hammersmith & Fulham Council have launched a London event to drive change in local authority collections practices.

The launch comes as Citizens Advice reveals that one person a minute experiences a bailiff breaking the rules. The claims have added fuel to the debate over local authority collection practices, with Citizens Advice saying government reform in this area has failed.

Rushanara Ali, MP and member of the Treasury Select Committee, will address senior local authority figures at the Local Authority Ethical Collections event in London on 7th February.

In July, the Treasury Select Committee published its report on household finances, calling for reform to ‘uncompromising’ local government collections.

The event, which is free to relevant personnel from councils, will hear from leading experts in the charity sector, financial regulation and local government. Attendees will also be able to see demonstrations of cutting-edge collections technology that transforms the approach they can take.

Eddie Nott, Managing Director for Intrum UK, said: “Local authorities face the difficult task of reforming collection practices while ensuring maximum returns to fund essential services. Fortunately, cutting the use of bailiffs doesn’t have to mean a reduction in revenues.”

He added: “Ethical collections offer a smart approach, not a soft option. Learning from best practice in the highly-regulated private sector means councils can raise their collections and ensure residents have a positive experience. Building relationships and negotiating sustainable payment plans reduces the risk to vulnerable residents and protects vital public services from further cuts.”

To register for the event visit:

AML firm SmartSearch named Living Wage employer

Anti-money laundering (AML) pioneers SmartSearch have become a Living Wage employer.

The voluntary commitment sees directly employed staff including casual workers over the age of 18; receive a minimum hourly wage of £8.75 in the UK; significantly higher than the national minimum wage for over 25s of £7.83 per hour.

The company, based in Ilkely near Leeds, employs 90 people, and has always put huge value on the welfare of its staff, as Martin Cheek, MD explains:

“We are committed to doing everything we can to ensure our staff are happy and motivated, and part of that commitment is guaranteeing that everyone who works for us is paid well for what they do.

“The Yorkshire and the Humber region has one of the highest proportions of non-Living Wage jobs in the country (24%), with over 502,000 jobs paying less than the real Living Wage.

“We hope that by committing to paying the real Living Wage, it might encourage other companies in the region to do the same. In reality our average pay across the business excluding directors is 30% above the living wage”

As SmartSearch already pays its staff well, the decision to sign up to The Living Wage was an easy one, and is the latest commitment SmartSearch has made to its staff. Last year when it became clear that SmartSearch’s growth meant it needed bigger offices, instead of just choosing a new base, the company’s directors engaged with all employees to discover what staff wanted from their workplace.

Following the inclusive process, the company moved to new headquarters at Mayfield House, on Lower Railway Road in Ilkley. The brand new, purpose built offices have enough room for the company’s 90 staff to eventually grow to 250 as well as dedicated spaces for social interaction.

The ground floor has a social hub for staff to work and play in a relaxed atmosphere and includes a quiet lounge and a games area with game consoles, a pool table and table football.

The kitchen is all built around a central island and there are a range of different styles of meetings rooms and break out areas including high back acoustic sofas and railway carriage ‘pods’. SmartSearch has also installed a fully equipped gym.

Martin Cheek, said: “Our staff are integral to the success of the business, and we are continually looking to invest in them, whether that is through training and development, creating a workplace that will inspire them, or by committing to paying above the Living Wage.

“Ultimately, we want to attract and retain talent and push our business even further forward, and we know the way to achieve that is to invest in and value staff.”

Tess Lanning, Director, Living Wage Foundation said: “We’re delighted that SmartSearch has joined the movement of over 4,000 responsible employers across the UK who voluntarily commit to go further than the government minimum to make sure all their staff earn enough to live on.

“They join thousands of small businesses, as well as household names such as IKEA, Heathrow Airport, Barclays, Chelsea and Everton Football Clubs and many more. These businesses recognize that paying the real Living Wage is the mark of a responsible employer and they, like SmartSearch, believe that a hard day’s work deserves a fair day’s pay.”