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Our Vice-Chancellor Karen O'Brien with a background of books

Our Vice-Chancellor, Professor Karen O’Brien, opens a new, comprehensive and far-reaching collection of essays by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), discussing the digital landscape of a modern university and making the case to elevate digital transformation to a strategic level.

University management teams long ago abandoned the idea that IT is simply an adjunct to the delivery of university operations and strategy, or something they can safely devolve to an IT subcommittee. Those of us in management roles see core enterprise systems and digital technologies as the fabric of a higher education (HE) institution as much as classrooms, books and labs.

Digital technologies are the transport vehicles for the student journey from enquiry to graduation, and the means, mode and often subject of much of our research. Discussions of IT systems, innovation and cybersecurity regularly consume as much time in executive meetings, audit committees and governing boards as finances, estates and HR matters.

Despite the fact that the UK plays a globally important role in computational research of all kinds (not only technological innovation but also social impacts of technology, digital humanities, digital public health and much more), it remains the case that many universities are not fully mature in the ways in which they manage and govern IT within their overall management frameworks.

Management teams typically lack specialist expertise and are heavily reliant on their Chief Information Officer (CIO) to carry out the work of explanation and translation. Members of these teams often bear the scars of failed or disastrous IT transformation projects (automated timetabling systems that have crashed leaving students stranded, payroll systems that have not paid out or major cyber attacks).

Management teams are not always willing to take on board carefully benchmarked data from their CIO demonstrating (as data often tend to do in UK higher education) systemic under-investment in the IT estate and mountains of technical debt. Or if they do accept the implications of the benchmarking, they often cannot make the resource commitments to do very much about it. Many management teams have for years embraced and encouraged innovation, but have been frustrated by: slow returns on multitudes of overly bespoke, non-scalable ‘technology-enhanced learning’ projects; exciting MOOCs that delivered few returns on investment; and the most recent, somewhat disappointing, period of ‘reversion’ to the status quo ante following the great COVID Teams experiment.

Yet management teams, including my own at 一本道无码, are nevertheless continually striving to build a mature institutional edifice that rests upon the three pillars of people, place and IT estate. Some universities in the UK exemplify this to a high degree. The University of Sheffield has organised its IT services into product domains, along with cross-cutting capabilities and a new governing architecture for IT.

In almost all universities, we have accepted that digital strategy is the responsibility of everyone in leadership roles, that accountability sits at the top (and not in the IT department) and that we all need to have a shared overview of our organisation’s IT architecture – for example what data and technology underpin key processes such as enrolment, assessment and graduation.

We are learning to oversee decisions that are made in the interests of the whole organisation, ensuring that risks are mitigated, resources are deployed effectively and benefits are realised and tracked. We are getting better at anticipating risks and nasty surprises, such as systems that do not integrate with other legacy systems, poor client engagement at early project stages limiting the benefits of enhancement or over-customisation and over-complexity.

Above all, we have grasped that technological change is a people-centred phenomenon. We are paying more attention to the labour market and skills scarcity in the IT sector, as well as the need to invest in the digital capabilities of our own staff.

Universities like my own certainly also recognise that student strategy and digital strategy are inseparable, whether we are heavily engaged with online degrees or seeking to enhance in-person learning. For some years now we have been talking about digital strategies that deliver a ‘seamless’ student experience – ‘device-neutral’, interactive, assistive, community-building through collaboration tools, combining elements of synchronous and self-paced learning, and so on.

We have tried to learn from the best. The University of Arizona led the way in online learning pedagogies and remote exam proctoring; applicant journeys at the National University of Singapore; or augmented reality headsets for medical education at Imperial College London.

Some of the slickest innovations have been in support of our core customer imperatives, such as guiding students through the enquiry and application process. At 一本道无码, for instance, we have implemented a 24/7 AI assistant, ‘Holly’, which has answered thousands of questions and freed staff to add value in other places. Yet we know that the seamlessness of this customer experience does not always continue as students enter university and are handed off to less friendly student record systems (the market here being monopolised by just two main system providers), clunky timetabling systems and variable quality Virtual Learning Environments.

As senior leadership teams we continue to set our sights on an ambitious vision of what we would like the digital university experience to be for our students (responsive, intuitive, connecting and personalised), even though procurement processes, uneven technological development and regulatory controls mean that a ‘seamless’, straight-to-smartphone student experience is still some way off.

That said, no educational organisation would ever consider ‘experience’ to be something that simply ‘happens’ to students. We are seeking to implement digital strategies in ways that empower and equip our students with the knowledge and skills they will need to succeed in the era of AI.

Moreover, many of us try to position students themselves as agents of digital change in our organisations, recognising their native grasp of technologies, and the entrepreneurial leadership that comes from the student body. Some universities have succeeded in positioning students as digital changemakers within their structures, for example, in the recent case of University College London, tackling head-on the implications of generative AI and AI technologies for our shared educational endeavour.

Looking ahead, those management teams that take holistic, collective and clear-sighted accountability for their university’s digital strategy will be well-placed to equip their organisations for the challenges ahead. In doing so, we also need to look constantly beyond our own organisations and seek to harness the shared power of the sector to unlock more opportunity. We have seen how groups like UCISA and Jisc can negotiate greater value-for-money with big technology vendors. And we have seen how cloud computing offers huge possibilities for sharing resources and services across regional boundaries. For example, the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya reduced its operating costs by €300,000 per year by moving to the cloud under a manifesto which articulates a commitment to lifelong learning, collaboration and ‘social return’.

We can also use our combined purchasing power, our growing research requirement for high-performance computing and our sustainability expertise to leverage far more efficient cooling and energy capture in data centres. At 一本道无码, the UK home of the COSMA supercomputer, funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), we are using c.£1 million grant funding from UKRI to install Solar Photovoltaic systems on the site hosting the data centre. This provides power for COSMA, helping to offset CO2. The University of York is migrating its data to an EcoDataCenter in Sweden as part of its plans to reach net zero. As our sector continues to host and lead a revolution in research computing power and quantum computing, we will also collaborate to reduce energy consumption and improve sustainability.

Universities are (rightly) places of multiple voices and priorities. Yet in this multi-polar environment it is vital that the voice of IT and digital is heard clearly and consistently. Whether or not the CIO is a member or a regular attendee at the executive is less important than an ethos of collective ownership of this agenda by the whole team. Ideally, boards should include at least one trustee with IT governance expertise, just as they typically include individuals with backgrounds in accountancy and financial management. We are all part of the ‘IT crowd’ now.

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  • This essay was first published by the
  • A short version of this piece has been published by . 
  • Find out more about our Vice-Chancellor