How Pilbara Group is helping Australian universities turn knowledge into insight

Guest blog post from Lea Patterson, President & CEO, Pilbara


Students in audiorium

In any society, the availability of high-quality, affordable education not only determines the prosperity of that country’s knowledge economy, but also its future viability as a key player in our digital world.

This is one of the key reasons why I’ve always been of the belief that everyone, regardless of geography, social or economic status, is entitled to a good education.

Bringing this vision to life is what drives the work we do at Pilbara – an Australian-based global consultancy and software company working with universities and colleges to ensure their courses and programs are sustainable and accessible to all.

We do this by building business analytics solutions enabling education institutions to optimise the increasing volumes of data being captured. Through the insights gleaned, executives are able to make faster and smarter business decisions benefitting all involved in the process.

Unlike commercial business entities, universities aren’t as straightforward when it comes to calculating the cost to deliver a product and the margins associated with it. For example, some courses might be more expensive than others, while failure rates and retention rates of students can also impact bottom lines.

Universities are facing additional challenges from multiple external factors too, with greater competition for students from international institutions, the introduction of new technologies, and new government legislation expected imminently. Despite the challenges, the commitment of Australia’s tertiary institutions to provide the courses and experiences students want, and society needs, as well as expand research and development unleashing new innovations, is unprecedented.

How Pilbara’s Solutions Work

Pilbara’s model enables universities to collate multiple, disparate data sources into a simple, visual platform by taking into account the various data sets available – from student management, financial investment, research and teaching outputs.

The Higher Education Decision Support Model (HEDSM)

Central to enabling this is Pilbara’s Decision Support Model, visualised using Microsoft Power BI, and its own modelling software ACE on-Demand, which is built on Microsoft SQL Server.

Configured specifically for higher education institutions it is designed to provide:

  • Enhanced Activity Based Costing reports on teaching activities at the course level, driven by timetabling and student management systems
  • Detailed data about costs, revenues, margins and activity, and outcome-related variables like class sizes, teaching loads, and student performance and attrition where this data is available
  • Historical views of past performance, plus the ability to test alternative assumptions about future financial planning and budgeting decisions
  • User-friendly dashboards that display both the historical and forecast data.

Supporting strategic and tactical decision makers

Because the HEDSM covers the entire university, it can be used to support high- level strategic questions as well as lower level tactical questions. It now takes only minutes to hours to answer questions that once required days or weeks.

Pilbara Group Higher Education Cost Models The types of questions the models can support include:

  • Which courses/programs are running at a loss?
  • What are the margins associated with each of the different teaching delivery methods (online, classroom, flipped) and if the data is available, which method(s) are the most effective for student learning?
  • What is the minimum number of students for a course to break even?
  • How do different student types contribute to the course, program, school and university margins?
  • What will be the financial impact of a drop/increase in international student numbers?
  • What is the financial impact of adding/removing courses?
  • What is the financial impact of a reduction of Government funding and/or an increase in student fees?
  • Is teaching subsidising research? If so, by how much and in which disciplines / schools / faculties?
  • What is the ratio of direct expenses to every direct dollar of Research Grant revenue? How does this change once you add in Faculty support or university-wide costs?

Essentially, Pilbara’s model enables universities to build a complete picture of their organisation at any given time, respond to questions on budget and resources quickly, and model what-if scenarios based on future parameters.

Who is Pilbara working with in Australia?

We’re currently working with ten institutions in Australia to unlock the benefits of their data, including the Australian National University, Deakin University and Western Sydney University.

Another university well on its way to harnessing the full value of its data is RMIT. Over the past four years, RMIT has worked in close partnership with the Pilbara team to build an enduring ABC model that will change and evolve with them over time.

The university’s goal is to be more agile, to understand the margins of each and every program, course and student type to make more informed decisions about which courses to run, and where they can, unlock savings that can be invested back into quality research, technology and the facilities they’re renowned for.

Having laid these foundations, RMIT is now expanding the model to correlate non-financial data into analytics, and understand whether investment in a course is aligned with student satisfaction and retention. Analysis that might take some organisations a week, RMIT can now complete in under 24 hours.

RMIT is just one example of how analysing the data that’s already available can contribute to better courses, more tailored learning environments, and ultimately, the reputation of the institution on a global scale.

Pilbara has created a model that enables universities to respond to many of the pressing questions they’ve been hoping to answer, one that can help prepare for a prosperous future, and continue to challenge the status quo – just as universities encourage their students to do.

For more information around how Australia’s Higher Education sector can take full advantage of the data at its fingertips to make better-informed decisions, download Microsoft’s Driving decisions through data: The future of higher education in Australia whitepaper.