Current challenges for IT departments

I provide a brief to the exhibitors for the main UCISA conferences that highlights the current issues for IT services and gives my take on the current HE climate. Here’s this year’s offering for the UCISA15 Conference.

1. Cloud and shared services

Many of the IT Service departments within our universities and colleges are now providing services to their institutions through a blended service delivery model. A number of components of the overall service are now provided through some form of outsourced provision. These include email and storage for both staff and students, office applications and collaboration tools, and the virtual learning environment. The drivers behind the move to cloud solutions are varied but include improving the services offered, improving resilience, and freeing up internal resource from managing commodity services to delivering services aligned with the institutional missions of teaching and research. There has also been recognition that economies of scale can be delivered by collaboration, joint procurement and sharing of services. There have been examples in the past where larger institutions have run applications for smaller neighbours but we have seen more collaboration in recent years. Recent examples include the North East Scotland Shared Date Centre (Winner of the 2013 UCISA Award for Excellence) and the recent collaboration between four London based institutions, two research centres and Jisc to procure a shared data centre.

The move towards cloud services continues and, as institutions look to negotiate contracts with suppliers, some are seeking to establish flexible arrangements which will facilitate sharing and allow the arrangements to be extended to other institutions. Such arrangements will benefit the supplier as they facilitate growth within a single contract, the anchor tenant as they will be able to benefit from greater efficiencies as new tenants come on board, and subsequent partners who will benefit from both lower costs and from much of the procurement activity having already taken place.

2. Student experience and engagement

The increase in competition in the higher education sector has triggered investment in facilities and services across the sector. These have included new and refurbished buildings on campuses providing high quality equipment and access to a wide range of learning resources and facilities, and investment in new technologies to enable access to services from off the campus, including via mobile technologies such as smart phones and tablets. Whilst access to teaching and learning resources are important factors in the student experience, it is equally important to ensure that all interaction with students are efficient, effective and professional. Consequently institutions are investing both in improving all their interactions with the student body and in raising the quality of the face to face services they provide. Continual improvement is now very much the mantra. The increase in student fees in 2012 led to greater student engagement on a number of levels. Students are now involved in many decisions at their institutions. Further a number of institutions have developed student engagement programmes. Such activity includes building relationships with IT suppliers so that they may offer training and development opportunities to the student population, employing students to help deliver IT services and engaging their students to assist (or in some cases, lead) development of applications and services.

There are a number of examples of both student engagement and service improvement in the submissions for the 2014 UCISA Award for Excellence. In particular, the winning entry from the University of Edinburgh picks up on a number of these themes – the submission describes how a student developed system to aid course selection was transitioned into a full production service.

3. Support of research

Research is a key activity in all universities but supporting research presents a number of challenges to IT service departments. Part of the challenge is managing seemingly conflicting drivers – there is a desire for open access to research data and outputs but also a need to implement appropriate security measures to protect the institution’s intellectual property. Information security is critical in assessing the risks to information and determining the level of protection that information should receive. This is an issue that UCISA has recognised; we will be launching our Information Security Management Toolkit at the Conference. Institutions are also faced with the challenge of managing the volume of data generated from creation through to its long term storage and archiving. This requires different services and skills to be deployed at the various stages of the research data lifecycle and a coordinated approach to research data management needs to be taken by each institution. The need to transfer data and to link systems to give an overall perspective of research data and information is driving the adoption of standards. However, interoperability of research related systems remains an issue.

Current environment

The 2014 admissions cycle saw the number of applicants placed through UCAS exceed 500,000 for the first time, maintaining the overall upwards trend of participation in higher education. The UCAS end of cycle report notes that almost all applicants received an offer from one of their selected institutions and many received offers from all of their chosen options. This suggests that it is currently a buyers’ market – undergraduate applicants are generally in a position to choose where they wish to study. The situation has also improved with regards to international students with numbers seemingly recovering from the impacts of the poor perception of the Government’s immigration policies abroad. There is, however, no room for complacency. The number of eighteen year olds, the mainstay of undergraduate applications, will decline over the next few years and the higher education sector faces increased competition from apprenticeships. The growth of the higher education sector in India and China may also provide increased competition for international students from Asia. Institutions need to redouble their efforts to attract, and then retain, students from both home and overseas.

There is recognition that the future job market will require different skills than at present and a common belief that the UK is ill prepared for the digital age. This is highlighted in a recent House of Lords report Make or break: the UK’s digital future which is critical of the higher education sector’s response to the need to reskill the workforce and to equip graduates for working in the digital world. Further, the ability to make best use of technology in teaching and research is being inhibited by low skills levels by staff and students alike. The report makes a number of recommendations targeted at the next Government and it remains to be seen whether any initiatives are funded to improve the nation’s digital capabilities. However, given that the period of austerity is likely to continue regardless of the result of the election, it may be that universities and colleges have to tackle the skills shortfall on their own.

The forthcoming election is probably the most open in many years. General elections lead to periods of uncertainty at the best of times but this is being exacerbated by predictions of a hung parliament and the prospect of a second election within the calendar year. It is clear though that the overall unit of resource of funding for students will not increase in real terms and so institutions will need to continue to drive efficiencies and process improvements. This may well lead to further collaboration and more shared services.

In many ways, my conclusion twelve months ago still holds true – 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 remains 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.

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