Current challenges in the sector

I circulate a briefing to exhibitors ahead of each of UCISA’s main conferences. As we are approaching UCISA14, here’s my take on the current state of the nation…

Current challenges for IT departments

1. Efficiencies and modernisation

The continued uncertainty within the sector has prompted increased focus on efficiencies and modernisation. CIOs and IT Directors continue to look at different ways of providing services and at streamlining operations. Many IT departments now deliver services by blending outsourced provision with internally provided services. The sector has been slow to adopt new shared services but there is growing evidence that institutions are looking to collaborate to share data centres and infrastructure. One such example is the North East Scotland Shared Data Centre which won the UCISA Award for Excellence and is featured in the University Showcase sessions on Wednesday afternoon.

Work on delivering efficiencies is not restricted to outsourcing alone. Many IT departments have responsibility for process improvement and for working with other departments within the institution to make more effective use of IT systems. The IT department will play a critical role in assisting the institution in identifying the benefits of new systems, prioritising those developments and demonstrating those benefits post implementation.

2. Student services and engagement

The advent of higher fees has seen a shift in attitude towards the student body in institutions. Students are now seen as partners helping shape decisions in their institutions and there is ongoing investment in understanding students’ expectations in order to build responsive services. In addition to the improvements in student engagement, institutions are looking at how they can make better use of the data they hold in order to both improve retention and improve student satisfaction. The aim of many of the efficiencies initiatives taking place in institutions is to improve the service for students, either by providing access to resources that could not be accommodated in house, or by improving system resilience. Additionally institutions are investigating ways of providing access to institutional resources from off campus.

3. Research data management

Whilst the changes in the fees regime are driving efficiencies and student related initiatives, a drive from Government and the Research Councils has made managing research data is a particular challenge to CIOs and IT Directors. There is a need to store large volumes of data generated as part of academics’ research but also to provide and manage wider access to that data for an extended period once the research has been completed. However, not all data should be openly available. Institutions carry out research that is commercially sensitive or contains personal (particularly medical) data; clearly such data needs a different level of protection to ensure that the information remains secure.

The current environment

A year ago the sector was managing the impact of the change in fees regimes in each of the four home countries. Although there was an overall fall in student numbers, the impact varied from country to country with the drop in undergraduate numbers not unexpectedly most pronounced in England. The different fees strategies saw an increase in EU enrolments offset a fall in UK domiciled undergraduates in Scotland but elsewhere EU student numbers also declined. There were, however, signs of recovery with undergraduate applications for courses for the current academic year increasing.

The optimism that undergraduate student numbers would bounce back was not misplaced – there were a record number of students placed into higher education through UCAS for the 2013/14 academic year. However, that does not give the complete picture. There were a number of institutions that failed to fill their undergraduate places despite the record numbers of acceptances UK wide. The sector has not seen a similar recovery in postgraduate and part time enrolments and there is evidence that the number of international (non-EU) students wanting to study in the UK is decreasing. This has led to a wide variation in the financial performance of individual institutions across the sector, and some institutions will face challenges if they experience repeated falls in student recruitment.

There are 30,000 additional places available at English higher education institutions for 2014/15 and the student number cap will be removed altogether from 2015/16. The removal of the cap will create both opportunities and risks, and increasing levels of uncertainty over student recruitment. This could lead to greater volatility in financial forecasting and even greater variations in individual institutional financial performance.

One impact of the increased competition has been greater emphasis on infrastructure and systems relating to all aspects of the student experience. Many institutions invested in their infrastructure ahead of the increase in fees but institutions continue to make capital investments in infrastructure, particularly where there has been historic underinvestment. There is concern, however, that the current growth in capital investment is not sustainable, with accounting changings requiring institutions to carry pension scheme liabilities on their balance sheet impacting available reserves and uncertainty over future student recruitment.

It is clear that the future higher education environment will be characterised by increased competition and as a consequence, institutions will need to be more agile in order to stay ahead of or respond to the competition. IT is critical to higher education institutions with IT embedded in every aspect of an institution’s operation. This will require a highly skilled IT department which, from the top down, has a good understanding of the institution’s business and aims.

The Conference website gives details of the programme and will include the presentations. I am looking forward to many good conversations with delegates and exhibitors alike.

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