John Smith's: Pioneering tech for UK universities

Have you ever wondered whether universities know how students spend their bursaries? If so, how that happens? We recently asked Tony Newson, Online Manager at one of the UK's biggest service providers in this sector, our client John Smith's.


Redwing: Tony, please can you tell us about John Smith's and what the business does


Tony Newson: John Smith's started out as a high street and university book retailer, mainly in Scotland. Then, with the general move from the high street to online, we developed into a service provider for universities in the UK, specifically giving universities a solution to manage their bursaries. There are two or three ways to do bursaries: fee-waivers to reduce the fee the student pays; cash to spend on anything; or thirdly a bursary that's linked to certain outcomes, and that is what we provide: a bursary management system linked to outcomes.


RW: What do you mean by "outcomes"?


TN: Universities using our Aspire system can monitor their students' bursary spend down to the pound and penny, and know what products and services they're spending the money on. By doing that we can then link that spend to outcomes, for example what degree level those students are finishing with, what the university's student retention rate is compared with before they used the system and even the employability rate. So although there's no definitive causal link between people spending money on text books and achieving a better result, there is generally an understanding that if students invest more of their bursary award in their education they'll get more out of it. 


RW: So using the Aspire system, what can the students buy with the bursary?


TN: Each university - we currently work with about 45 of the 126 - decides which vendors they want the students to be able to spend with. That could be the student union, the cafe, books, the gym, a local art store, products for a hairdressing course. We all know that if you gave them the choice most students would take the cash! But then they'd spend it mostly on mobile phone bills or going out and it wouldn't actually benefit their education. Overwhelmingly, feedback is very positive.


RW: So where is most of the money being spent?


TN: The biggest spend is books but towards the end of the year that goes down as they've bought all their books so towards the end of the year you might see a lot of students buying technology like a pair of Beats or an iPad and actually what we find now far more than ever before is people spending all of their bursary plus a lot of their own money to buy what they want. And sometimes students don't spend anything in year one and then put two years’ worth towards a Mac. Apple is probably the biggest supplier that we deal with.


RW: How has going online changed your business?


TN: When we went to Redwing for the last iteration of the website, e-Commerce was something like 10% of our turnover. This year it's well over 60%. In terms of our own business costs, if you have a shop there's investment in rental, rates, stock and staff whereas if you have an online business you have IT costs, distribution and customer service. You also work with more external suppliers - we now work with about 25 different suppliers for everything from Macs, laptop software and books to camera lenses and curling tongs!


Redwing: How important is a bespoke tech solution to deliver all this?


TN: It's very important in our case and Redwing's expertise and IT capability allows us to have one main content management system, but personalise each university's system to their exact requirements, look and feel. Some universities choose to direct their bursaries towards book spending as they see that as being directly advantageous to their students’ studies, while others are happy for a more general spend on the basis that if you buy a laptop, printer or photography equipment you're more likely to engage continually with your course.


RW: What's important for you in a digital agency?


TN: Where Redwing are really good is interpreting a brief, a vision, and building a smart technical solution that's scalable. We sat down with them and told them what we wanted and what we needed across all those universities and their ability to take that, understand it, ask more questions and deliver is remarkable. I've also been really impressed by how they've been able to integrate with our own in-house systems such as our IT, finance, sales and stock reporting. That is all now integrated with our website CMS, so every order that's placed is truly dynamic in terms of integrating in real time with our third party suppliers' stock levels and our own sales back office system. That was missing before. We had two distinct IT systems that didn't really talk, but now it's all integrated which has been a leap forward. They also have the graphic design and brand people in-house as well so everything is joined up, which is a big benefit.


Coming soon: How the technology works to benefit the university and its students


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