Leaked news that the core of the multi-million pound Student Lifecycle Project (SLP) - a system for managing student records - has failed sparked outrage among staff who warned that it would not work and were threatened with “fire and rehire” contracts last year as a way of filling a black hole in the university’s budget.
The university confirmed that it could not go ahead with the project as originally planned but added that it had already delivered some elements of it and is now working on a new plan to deliver needed improvements.
The move comes just a few months after the university decided to close its world-renowned archaeology department and as staff take part in a national ballot for more strike action over pay, working conditions and pensions.
A Sheffield UCU (University and College Union) representative said: “We are shocked to learn how the spending on this project has spiralled out of control with seemingly little governance oversight and with virtually nothing to show for it. There have been widespread concerns expressed by staff since the inception of the SLP, which management actively disregarded, repeatedly assuring us that the project was on track, or under control. This has clearly not been the case.”
The SLP - which was expected to be implemented by 2020 and has been in the works since 2014 - aimed to be “world-class” and “fix fundamental technology problems that, if allowed to deteriorate further, expose the university to unpalatable risk”, according to a report released via a Freedom of Information (FOI) request.
Early on, staff said it would be more cost-effective to fix the problems with the current system rather than replace it, the union said, but the university decided to push ahead with a brand new product.
Staff raised concerns again soon after being seconded to work on the SLP warning that it was not possible to deliver the programme the university was asking for.
The union also said that the university only released documents under FOI about the SLP after the requester complained to the Information Commissioner, the regulator for FOIs.
Reports, eventually released by FOI requests, showed that the university had approved a spend of £30.4 million up to November 2021, and forecast a "worse case scenario" total spend of £59.2 million on the project - more than three times the original budget.
In a document from 2020, the university acknowledged the “turbulence” of the programme up to that point but said it was a key moment to communicate its progress so far.
Using military analogy, the report said the university wanted to “establish where everyone is on the beach and whether everyone is aiming to take the same hill”.
The university did consider stopping the project in that same year, according to another document, but said this option “carries at least the same significant risks, if not worsening risks” than continuing with it as they did.
A Sheffield UCU representative said: “This profligate spending while dismissing staff expertise is part of a larger pattern of questionable financial and strategic decision making by the University Executive Board (UEB) and Council.
"This is the same university leadership which threatened all 8,000 staff with fire-and-rehire on worse terms and conditions in the summer of 2020, on the basis of ‘financial uncertainty’, while at the same time declaring that funding for the SLP was vital and could not be cut.”
As costs rocketed, so did the number of employees who were seconded to the project from across the university - in some cases for years - in areas including IT, administration and admissions but the union said workers were not being replaced and as a result, they were being overstretched.
They said: “As well as the remarkable financial cost, there has also been a significant unbudgeted human cost, with individual university staff being overloaded with extra work, and whole teams being understaffed with some of their most experienced members sent on long-term transfers to the SLP.”
They added that as of April this year, there were 120 people working on the SLP in total.
However, the university said arrangements for backfill were put in place for seconded roles and there are now less than 10 seconded staff working on the SLP.
One member of university staff, who wished to remain anonymous, said the SLP situation was egregious, especially in light of ongoing disputes and the recent closure of the world-leading archaeology department.
University records show that the department had a budget of around £3.2 million in the 2019/20 financial year, which equates to around what the university was spending once every two months on the SLP recently.
More than 42,000 people, including academics and politicians from around the world, signed a petition fighting the closure and the Council for British Archaeology warned that it would be devastating if it went ahead.
Despite this, the university confirmed plans to close the department and move some teaching and research to other parts of the university, saying that the department was no longer academically sustainable.
Analysis by Sheffield UCU, using the UEB’s own figures released under FOI, showed that the university would be in a better financial position in five years’ time if it invested in four new posts and kept the department open than it would be closing it.
As news of the SLP's failings spreads across campus, there is concern about what will happen to staff involved as new plans are drawn up.
Responding to criticism, a University of Sheffield spokesperson said the SLP had not been cancelled, saying it had delivered on two parts of the programme relating to functionality and managing modules and was on track to deliver another system before Christmas. They added that scoping work had started on detailed proposals for the future of the project which will be presented to the University Council in February next year.
They said: “The university is changing its approach to the delivery of the Student Lifecycle Programme. As is the case in any significant transformation programme across a large and complex organisation of our size, we need to take an agile approach and adapt to the things we learn as the programme develops.
“It has become clear that it will not be possible to integrate the student record management system ‘SITS’ with our current Corporate Information System (CIS) as initially planned, so we will need to deliver this work in a different way. The investment in the programme has already delivered new systems that previously did not exist at the university and our work to date will be important as we develop our future plans. We are keeping our staff updated and will support them as this work progresses.”