One of the messages from the Universities UK conference in September was that universities need to do far more to promote themselves. There continues to be scepticism about the value of universities and the introduction of the new fees regime has fuelled that scepticism further. In addition, there is a belief by some in Whitehall that the sector is “feather bedded” and inefficient. In his address to the conference, the Universities UK President, Christopher Snowden highlighted two risks identified in a report from 2011 by the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement – that
“public support for investment in the sector could be damaged because society does not fully appreciate the value of higher education”
“without better insight into how universities generate value, we miss an important opportunity to achieve more with limited resources, and will struggle to engage in purposeful debate with wider society about the future direction of the sector”
He noted that “We need to pull together and communicate the value of higher education using real examples that mean something to the public, business and politicians”. It was a theme Toni Pearce, President of the National Union of Students, revisited in her address at the same conference. Universities need to go out and promote both themselves and the sector.
Although the focus of both addresses was at the institutional and sector level, there are some clear parallels for IT service departments within institutions. They are facing similar challenges internally – the value of what they deliver is not understood. All too often IT is seen not as a strategic contributor to the success of the institution but as a utility and a cost. To paraphrase Christopher Snowden, we need to communicate the value of IT using real examples that mean something to institutional management.
Delivering that message isn’t just restricted to the IT Director or the CIO. Everyone in IT Services has a role to play, to be on message, to listen to the customer, understand what they are trying to achieve and to promote what IT services does. There needs to be an efficient mechanism within the department to harvest all this information and to act appropriately on it in order to ensure that IT services can improve the service and anticipate demands. Providing a quality service, listening to customers and responding to their needs will go some way to IT services becoming a trusted partner in delivering their institution’s strategic aims.
There are, of course, other opportunities to demonstrate the excellent work that IT services perform – awards. UCISA has invited entries for both the Award for Excellence and the Amber Miro Memorial Award for innovation. Success gains recognition from the Vice Chancellor of the winning institutions and provides the opportunity to promote the institution more widely in the sector. However, institutional IT service departments face a wide range of challenges with demanding customers in a complex environment. They are delivering quality services comparable to commercial companies. So it is all the more pleasing to see two universities beating large commercial organisations to win awards at the UK IT Industry Awards. Congratulations to the University of Aberdeen (and their partners Robert Gordon University and North East Scotland College) for taking the Data centre project of the year category and to the University of Derby for winning the Network/infrastructure project of the year. I hope that the PR departments of the two universities promote their success beyond the institutions. We need to take every opportunity to demonstrate that universities are efficient and effective in delivering quality services, to promote not just IT services within institutions or even within the sector, but the sector as a whole.