|12th January 2024
|Claire Taylor MBE, Managing Consultant
SUMS Consulting has been working with its members and the wider UK HE sector for over 25 years on projects related to timetabling and space management. Over the past five years alone, we’ve worked with over 20 universities on projects relating to process, policy, curriculum delivery, block scheduling, teaching space needs analysis and so forth. Recently we have been working with two universities in relation to the procurement of new timetabling software, in particular the facilitation of soft market testing.
In a previous version of this briefing note, we stated incorrectly that the CMIS platform was no longer receiving support from OneAdvanced. We have corrected the article to state that the CMIS platform will continue to be supported by OneAdvanced for the foreseeable future and clarified the position on its future development. We apologise to OneAdvanced for this error and to their customers for any concerns that this error may have caused.
Here, Claire Taylor MBE, Managing Consultant, explores the reasons why more and more institutions are thinking about replacing their timetabling systems.
Drivers for change
In our work with universities over the past few years, an abiding long-term recommendation for all was to consider their software strategy in light of their organisation’s digital strategy. We’ve seen in a number of functional areas, that suppliers are moving their platforms to cloud solutions and reducing, then stopping, support for their on premise solutions (e.g. Unit4). Given the complexity of the procurement and implementation process for a new timetabling solution, future cloud-based strategies have not proven significant impetus for institutions to start procurement exercises, especially with the additional pressures placed on timetabling teams by the covid pandemic between 2019/20 and 2022/23.
But the timetabling system landscape has changed significantly in the past 3 years, the risk profile is starting to change, and the majority of institutions will have significant procurement decisions to make in the next three years.
Read on to understand a little of the history, more about the current systems landscape and a lot about how the SUMS Group is planning to support our members and the wider sector to consider their next steps in this area.
The timetabling system landscape in UK Higher Education was dominated by a virtual duopoly: SyllabusPlus (formerly of Scientia, now owned by TechOne) and CMIS (OneAdvanced) for a long time. Looking back to 2020, Scientia had around 50% of the UK HE Sector, CMIS 24% and the remainder of institutions were either using in-house solutions, other third party solutions or a sub-set of the student record system.
The other providers include Celcat (popular with FEIs and smaller or non-centralised HEIs) and EventMap whose exam solution was developed by academics interested in resource optimisation. Rarer choices included ASIMUT (favoured by dramatic arts institutes) and InfoSilem (owned by a French publishing company, more popular in Europe and Canada).
Cloud alternatives emerged as serious contenders around 5 years ago. A number of former Scientia employees established the start-up company Semestry, offering a ‘cloud first’ scheduling solution (more about that later). TimeEdit entered the UK market around two years ago, having already gained a client base in Scandinavia and the Netherlands. Both Semestry and TimeEdit were successful, taking market share from Scientia (especially during periods of uncertainty before Scientia were acquired by Tech One).
Larger HE software suppliers (either ERP or Student Records) have now started to take an interest in the timetabling market. The Tribal Group bought Semestry in 2022 bringing TermTime into the same stable as SITS (Tribal’s Student Record System, which has around 50% market share in the UK).
In 2022, TechOne (an Australian ERP supplier with a small market share in the UK) purchased Scientia and therefore added a timetabling solution to its Finance, HR and Student Records offering and a much stronger foothold in the UK HE Market.
In Autumn 2023, TechOne announced an October 2024 deadline for the cessation of support for its on-premise ERP products. This was the culmination of 8 years of planning; the majority of its customers had already moved to SaaS. TechOne confirmed that SyllabusPlus is outside the scope of this announcement and there is no deadline yet planned to cease support for the on-premise core scheduling solution.
In late 2023, the big news was that Ellucian (suppliers of student record systems like Banner and Quercus) have announced their intention to acquire the Tribal Group, thus providing Ellucian with its first specific timetabling software solution (Semestry) but raising questions about the future of SITS.
Finally, at the end of 2023, OneAdvanced wrote to customers to inform them that the CMIS platform would not be developed. Whilst it would continue to be supported and to receive compliance and security updates, there would be no further major releases and it would not be moved to the cloud.
Cloud, hosted or on premise: what does this mean?
The main difference between cloud, hosted and on-premise solutions is the location of the data. Simply put, on-premise solutions are run on an organisation’s own hardware and solely across its own infrastructure whereas cloud or hosted solutions are run on a third party’s servers (for example Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure or Google Cloud Platform). The more traditional on-premise solutions generally required a ‘fat’ user layer, whilst cloud solutions’ ‘thin’ user layer is usually a web browser.
The functionality and performance of on-premise solutions have historically been limited both by personal computers’ specifications and the breadth of other applications installed on that machine, as well as similar characteristics of on-premise infrastructure. Cloud solutions addressed these concerns: software-as-a-service (SaaS) transformed capital spend on infrastructure into scalable, recurrent annual expenditure, generally a more efficient and economic approach, but often introduced other concerns related to security, integrity and control.
The difference between cloud and hosted for the purposes of this article is that hosted solutions take the traditional on-premise solution and port that into a virtual machine, hosted in the cloud. A user accesses the virtual machine through a browser and whilst the virtual machine can have an improved specification, the software is not optimised for cloud and often retains the limitations of the on-premise solution.
Increasing numbers of institutions are prioritising what they call cloud based solutions in their overarching digital strategies and therefore their procurement strategies. In effect this might mean a transitional period of “not on premise” (i.e. hosted).
What does this mean for Timetabling?
This trend is impacting on timetabling platforms: Semestry, EventMap and TimeEdit are ‘cloud native’ solutions which were designed specifically for Cloud.
Of the on-premise platforms:
- Celcat has a cloud only solution and is gradually shifting its client base over
- InfoSilem have moved their Timetabling solution to Cloud (and is gradually shifting their client base over) but their exam scheduling solution remains on-premise
- TechOne offers SyllabusPlus’ core scheduling functionality as a hosted solution, whilst providing add-on functionality through a true cloud layer. There is no roadmap as yet for the core scheduling software to be replaced by a fully cloud-based solution.
- As stated above, OneAdvanced will not be developing a cloud version of CMIS.
What does this mean for Timetablers?
So most timetablers in the UK HE space are being pushed into considering their systems development pathways:
- Should they upgrade to the latest versions of their current on-premise software solution?
- Should they upgrade to a hosted SaaS version with their existing supplier?
- Should they upgrade to a cloud equivalent with their existing supplier?
- Should they extend their current contracts or start looking for alternative supplier(s)?
Most Heads of Timetabling will have never been through a procurement process in their career, as the landscape has been dominated by a virtual duopoly until relatively recently.
How can SUMS help?
We will be running a series of lunchtime events in February and March 2024 to support the timetabling, procurement, and IT communities in this area. There will be a series of supplier demonstrations hosted by SUMS as well as a specific procurement session aimed at timetablers. If there is demand we’ll run a discussion forum to allow timetabling colleagues to discuss their experiences.
We can also offer support to institutions who are moving through the procurement lifecycle, from facilitation of soft market testing to requirements gathering and documentation, through to testing and implementation advice.
Timetabling IT architecture has typically been a slow moving landscape. Universities are beginning to understand the importance of the timetable for student satisfaction, effective delivery of curriculum, efficient use of space and other resources as well as for staff satisfaction. Having a good timetabling system in place is an important hygiene factor in delivering against these objectives. More UK HEIs are starting a journey to explore their options in this area than at any time in the last ten years.
edited post: 25 January 2024