Chief information officers playing strategic role in UK HE – report

The ‘Digital Transformation of Higher Education’ report was undertaken with Microsoft during October and November in 2020 and involved interviews with 14 CIOs and heads of IT at universities across the UK and Northern Ireland.

“CIOs want to build partnerships that help deliver the ‘big-picture’ strategy”

In her introduction, ucisa’s CEO Deborah Green acknowledged the efforts of university and college IT staff in “enabling remote working for just under three million students, lecturers, researchers, academic leaders and support staff” and moving the delivery of HE online in the spring.

She quoted one vice chancellor as saying, “our IT team delivered four years’ worth of digital strategy in six weeks, enabling our whole operation to continue”.

Despite the huge progress made, the majority of CIOs conceded that full digital transformation has not yet been achieved and that many HEI are still at “an initial or intermediate phase of the process, focusing on improvements to the back end”, including moving services to the cloud and investing in software-as- a-service.

The overall “traditional culture of the higher education sector” was cited as a barrier to full digital transformation.

Other factors cited were: a lack of buy-in from key stakeholders; differing budget priorities; the adaptations needed for courses that require on-site activities; the difficulty of assessing students remotely and overcoming travel restrictions and time zone differences to deliver education to international students.

Meanwhile, positive drivers for change included delivering on student expectation.

The report described this as “critically important for institutions to remain competitive”, with CIOs indicating this is because of the ongoing ‘consumerisation’ of higher education.

The momentum towards change, the report said, has been helped by the pandemic and the impetus that it gave to digital processes being implemented under the supervision of CIOs and IT heads.

However, as the report further noted, rather than simply reacting to circumstances, CIOs have become “key advisors to the board and faculty, participating in strategic decisions about the future delivery of teaching and learning”.

Now that CIOs have repositioned themselves, the sternest challenge they face is that the ‘student experience’ is still very, very important to new cohorts. This means that ‘hybrid learning’, mixing remote and on-site education, is the best solution.

The largest challenges the report detailed to rolling out ‘hybrid learning’ include that “less advantaged students often struggle to access the equipment or necessary broadband connection to participate in the digital classroom” and that institutions need to re-skill or up-skill their staff, especially as technology changes.

The report concluded that, “CIOs are looking to the future and want to ensure that their herculean efforts in recent months can benefit their institutions’ long-term business objectives.

“They are not looking for transactional conversations with suppliers about individual technology needs. Rather, they want to build partnerships that help deliver the ‘big-picture’ strategy.”

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