The cost of exams is a major entry in the expenditure column of a college’s balance sheet, but, as Rob Elliott explains, moves to simplify the current FE exams process could lessen their financial impact.

Different awarding bodies in the FE world currently require candidate data to be sent in a multitude of different formats from good old-fashioned paper, to spread sheets or via online portals and independently-developed electronic data interchange (EDI) systems.

Add to the mix that a general FE college can deal with up to 50 of the 100-plus existing awarding bodies and it is little wonder we have an exams system that many find confusing and ultimately costly to operate.

But, after a number of attempts to rationalise the existing exams system, change is finally on the horizon.

A big sector push was crystallised by a non-partisan paper, written by Capita, that gained support from more than 100 colleges as well as other MIS suppliers.

It called for a new industry standard of electronic data transfer, open to all awarding bodies to adopt, and emphasised the desire to see full and transparent fee information in the transactions.

Concurrently, there was a meeting between the major awarding bodies who form the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) — AQA, Edexcel, OCR, WJEC, CCEA and City & Guilds — where they realised that their existing EDI systems needed to be replaced with new electronic formats to cope with future exams and assessments.

They decided to work co-operatively to design a new system, available for all awarding organisations to adopt.

Led by JCQ, the A2C Data Exchange Project (Awarding Organisations-to-Centres), a full-scale restructuring initiative, is now underway.

Although the new system will be initially for these key awarding bodies, the hope is that others will follow suit — indeed many are already showing an interest.

Better quality data will reduce late entry fees”

Overall, the new system will lead to greater clarity during planning and accountability in the reconciliation process.

Certainly a reduction in interfaces will make the process more streamlined, requiring less effort to run a more efficient system.

Each awarding body will provide their own product catalogue, containing all the normal, late and very late fees. In effect, colleges will have a cash register of entries, allowing them to manage invoices from different examining bodies more efficiently.

An increased transparency in the cost of exams might lead to a more competitive market, and may well see colleges making different choices as to which exam board they use.

Having integrated student records and exams systems that share common data also improves the quality of exam entry data, helping colleges keep a tighter rein on expenditure.

For example, Edinburgh’s Telford College recently adopted a fully integrated student and exams system and dropped their error rate from 20 per cent of data entries being rejected by the Scottish Qualification Authority (SQA) to 0.1 per cent. Non-certification of students also dropped significantly from 15per cent to less than 0.1 per cent, giving a saving of around £60,000 in the first year.

Better quality data will reduce late entry fees — an avoidable expense — and ensure no student who has changed or withdrawn from the course is entered for an exam.

When you consider that the second largest expenditure for colleges after staffing costs are exams fees — which can be more than £1m — this could add up to substantial savings.

Michael Turner, director of JCQ, sums it up when he says that the A2C is an excellent example of how awarding organisations, in cooperation with MIS providers, are working together to improve data sharing.

“Although the programme won’t be finished completely until 2014, the benefits are already being realised,” he said.

“We will see improvements in what data is shared so that there is a harmonised system across general and vocational qualifications, and a reduction in the bureaucracy of administrating examinations. It really is a system for the 21st century.”

Rob Elliott, product manager at Capita Further and Higher Education