The changing service relationship (part 1)

Over the next three days I’ll be at IUISC Conference – the Irish equivalent of UCISA. Apart from the welcome from the President of NUI Galway, the remaining presentations on the first day were from UK institutions. This entry covers the first two presentations.

James Browne’s welcome painted a fairly stark picture of the future education environment in Ireland. There have already been cuts but there will be more. He postulated that there would be rationalisation in the sector with the prospect of fewer institutions but also noted that recession was typically a time for opportunity for the sector. However the current parlous state of the global economy made the need to deliver more for less essential. This clearly needed institutions to rethink all aspects of their operation to deliver more efficient integrated processes.

The pressures are slightly different in Ireland than they are in the UK. There is a far greater level of State control as the institutions depend mostly on State funding. In the UK there is greater flexibility as there is less dependency on Government funding. However, it would be rash to assume that because the UK institutions rely less on State funding that they need not look at their processes and make appropriate changes to deliver efficient, quality services.

Chris Sexton spoke about Sheffield University’s Information Commons. For those that don’t know, the building is the result of a combined Computing Services (CiCS)/Library initiative to improve the student experience at Sheffield and thereby address a number of ‘student experience’ issues. The building provides computing and library facilities in the same location 24/7. But it provides much more in that it provides somewhere for students to work easily in groups, somewhere to work in a more casual environment than a formal student lab or the library. It took some time to get funded – it was a difficult business case to make as there was no “income” from the new facility. The finance director at the time failed to make the link between improving the student experience and continuing to bring quality students to Sheffield. Perhaps a good indication that all senior management staff at an institution need to understand all aspects of the institution’s business. But despite the setbacks the two services pressed on and eventually the building was delivered.

The Information Commons (IC) is full of design with the student in mind. These include technical approaches – for example wall bound ‘screens’ which students can write on, then take picture of what they have done and load the content up onto webpage – and softer aspects such as looking to create areas for group work and creating space where the student could feel ‘at home’ whilst working.

The IC has been an outstanding success but there have been lessons learned on the way. Critically they listened to what the students wanted, particularly in first six months of operation to adjust the new facility. It was important to maintain engagement with the design experts during the build to make sure that the building met its aims. But it has been a success with the result that its customers want more – more facilities like it across the campus. Meeting that demand will present Sheffield with further challenges.

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