Universities have been around for centuries – the first was founded in 859 AD. But how are they adapting to modern ways?

The Singapore Management University (SMU) is a much younger institution in comparison, at only two decades old, and is being run in a whole new way. Data is embedded in every aspect and is helping to influence many of the decisions the university makes, from student experience to car park spaces.

Vetrivillalan Vennila, Assistant Director of Data Analytics at SMU, spoke at the recent Qlik Data Revolution Tour 2019 about how SMU has partnered with the data integration and analytics company to make data-driven decisions.

Making teaching more effective

The university is trialling machine learning to analyse students’ feedback on courses. This gives the university richer insights than regular surveys on their daily experience. The university has used this to shape courses and adapt pedagogy.

Meanwhile, the admissions department is predicting students’ GPAs and learning patterns. “We can better understand teaching and learning effectiveness,” said Vetrivillalan. This would allow the university to step in and provide support for students who are falling behind. This has been a huge step up from the excel spreadsheets that the team used to rely on to track the progress of every student.

SMU is using data analytics to improve faculty and staff management as well, she added. “We need to see the demographics of the faculty – who is teaching in each discipline? Where are the gaps in faculty and how should we be filling those gaps?” she explained.

Optimising learning facilities and operations

SMU is the most centrally-located university in Singapore, but its prime location poses a number of constraints on its management. “Being a city campus, space is not something we take for granted,” shared Vetrivillalan.

The Campus and Infrastructure team is using analytics to understand what kinds of facilities are in demand, so they can know what to build and where to build them in the future. Analytics is also helping the university to understand and cut down on energy consumption, highlighted Vetrivillalan.

It is also using analytics to track classroom maintenance so that lessons are not disrupted. If an air-conditioner or projector breaks down, “our team can tell you exactly which other room with the same facilities is available”, said Vetrivillalan. “So it gives easy insight for swapping venues for maintenance, or switching classrooms,” she added.

An example of how data has helped the university manage its operations is in the library. SMU has installed sensors on the library’s multiple entrances to track foot traffic. “We can know which gates are more effective, where to deploy more librarians throughout the day, and what time each gate should be open or closed,” said Vetrivillalan.

Data analytics has even helped the university recuperate lost revenue. The analytics report for the car park found that some drivers were tailgating others at entrances and exits, avoiding having to pay for car park fees. “It was helpful for the auditing team to know that this was even an issue in the first place,” shared Vetrivillalan.

The alumni office, on the other hand, has been able to improve its outreach. The office was able to track their reach of alumni within Singapore and across the globe, have insights on which alumni events were more successful, and receive updates on alumni membership growth.

SMU’s tips for managing data

Crucially, every department has been trained to work and make decisions with data. The Data Analytics team is there to help should they run into any issues, but for the most part, each team is very much data literate, according to Vetrivillalan. “We are facilitators of the development, we serve as a backbone for other departments,” Vetrivillalan said. That is how SMU has been able to keep their data team lean over the years.

A challenge for many large organisations is that teams are not willing to share data with other departments. “Often, people are hesitant about sharing their data because they worry that it may be misinterpreted”, noted Vetrivillalan. To tackle this, SMU has instituted a strict audit process similar to that of banks.

Every user who wishes to get access to data must declare their intended use and outcome. As an added layer of security, the data owners get a say in whether access should be granted after the form has been filled. “This gives data owners full confidence that their data is secure, and it is governed by them,” said Vetrivillalan.

From collecting teaching feedback and optimising classroom facilities to managing the library and the car park, data has become central to SMU’s operations. SMU may be a young university, but they can teach a thing or two about using data to refine its teaching, operations and resource distribution.