Challenges for heads of Corporate Systems departments

I write a briefing for the Exhibitors at the UCISA CISG Conference which focuses on the challenges the Conference delegates are facing and highlights the current issues in the sector. The briefing is below….

Challenges for CISG delegates
1. A blended approach to service delivery

IT service departments have long been in the position where they have had to support an increasing number of systems and services without a commensurate increase in resources. This has led to increased adoption of outsourced services for some aspects of the service whilst retaining a core of services in house. It is rare that the reason for outsourcing a service is to reduce costs. More often it is to improve the service offered, to free up resource within the IT department so that it can be redeployed on projects more closely aligned with the institutional mission, or to address skills shortages. The move to a blended delivery model has its challenges; integrating services from a range of providers is not cost free and institutions have to ensure that any outsourced service has at least comparable resilience to those provided in house. There is still some uncertainty amongst senior university management about the role cloud services may have in providing IT services and storage, particularly with regard to managing research data. This uncertainty is reflected in a continued trend to build data centres rather than procure cloud services.

2. Business intelligence, analytics and data/information governance

The volatility in student numbers over the past two years has resulted in increased use of business intelligence and analytics to model potential scenarios to assist planning. Analytics are also being used to improve retention by using data from a variety of sources to identify those students at risk of dropping out and we are starting to see more attention being paid to the potential for learning analytics to assist students in making their module and course choices. This has, along with the implementation of the Key Information Set (KIS), highlighted the variable quality of data within institutions and has brought greater focus on information and data governance. The need for strong information governance has been highlighted by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills in its briefings on cyber security. Although primarily focused on ensuring that sensitive research is adequately protected, they have resulted in a greater attention being paid to managing information, securing data and ensuring compliance with legislation within an environment where open access, particularly to publicly funded research, is encouraged. The growth in the use of portable devices such as laptops, tablets and smartphones both on and off campus to access corporate information and to possibly store personal information and university records presents a new challenge in preventing data protection breaches and ensuring an institution’s data are not compromised. CISG are running an event on information management and governance in January which may be of interest.

3. Skills shortages

One of the reasons institutions have cited for moving to a managed service has been to address skills shortages. A number of institutions are facing skills shortages in key areas. This is partly as a result of year on year budget and staffing cuts which have meant that there is no flexibility in managing staff resource, and partly because internal role evaluation exercises have led to the salaries for technically focused posts being unattractive for suitably qualified personnel. This may see an increase in the use of external agencies to deliver projects and an increase in the use of managed services, either for service provision or for specialist IT support.

The current HE landscape

The 2013 admissions cycle closed with a more positive outlook for the sector as a whole. The number of undergraduate admissions returned close to the 2011 levels after the expected dip in numbers in 2012 and many universities achieved their target numbers. However, there remain concerns about the drop in postgraduate, part-time and mature student numbers and the impact of the Home Office rhetoric on immigration continues to be felt with international students proving harder to attract.

Although many universities budgeted for a drop in student numbers in 2012, few anticipated how far short of achieving their targets they would fall. This has resulted in institutions cutting budgets further whilst still looking to continue to invest in improving the student experience. The recovery in student numbers, whilst welcome, does not signal a significant improvement in the ongoing financial position for institutions. There are growing pressures on research funding and with requirements for open access to resources and long term storage of data, institutions are having to do more with, at best, the same but in many instances, less. The same is true of fee income. Undergraduate student fees are not increasing with inflation and so are falling in real terms, whilst the costs of teaching continue to rise. Consequently the focus on efficiencies and modernisation remains. Institutional initiatives are supported by national programmes to improve efficiency, notably by driving savings through better procurement. There will be many institutions that will look to modernise their processes by implementing new IT systems. However, IT is only part of the solution; the introduction of a new IT system needs to be supported by process improvement and, in many instances, a change in culture. The recent UCISA publication Strategic challenges for IT departments highlights the complexities of successfully embedding IT systems and services to deliver successful business goals.

The White Paper Students at the heart of the system, published in 2011, recognised the need for reducing the reporting burden on universities. The HEDIIP programme has been instigated to attempt to reduce this burden and looks to enhance the arrangements for the collection, sharing and dissemination of data and information about the UK higher education system. The Director of HEDIIP, Andy Youell, spoke about the Programme on Wednesday afternoon.

You can view the presentations from the conference from the link on the conference web page.

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