2019 UCISA Leadership Conference notes

This year’s edition looked at recruitment and diversity, among other challenges facing sector leaders

Nearly 400 delegates gathered in Edinburgh in March for the 2019 ucisa Leadership Conference. The conference this year, while continuing to highlight much of the good practice and innovation that exists in our institutions, also explored the people side of delivering change, recognising the challenges IT service departments face in recruiting and retaining a quality, diverse workforce.

Recruiting a member of staff is a major investment. One delegate commented that if an institution was buying an IT system costing £500,000 it would go through a major procurement exercise and yet, although a member of staff costs that much over 10 years, we don’t invest nearly as much effort. So where should we look to improve? Firstly, most agreed that it was important to create the right environment and this starts with making the education sector an attractive place to work. It was felt that remedial action was needed given some of the adverse press given to the higher education sector recently – something along the lines of a recent recruitment video for the NHS could be produced to help promote working in the sector. Ensuring a work environment where staff can be themselves and feel psychologically safe was also seen as key. IT service departments’ websites also came in for criticism – they need to highlight the contribution IT makes to the organisation and demystify the work of the department to promote the breadth of opportunities that exist.

Sally Bogg, in her opening remarks to the conference, noted that few IT teams reflected the diversity of the student body. It is not just a problem in the UK – Hillary Baker, CIO at the University of California, Northridge, noted that there are similar challenges in the US, both in terms of diversity and recruiting graduates to the HE IT workforce. Many recognised the need to break down stereotypes and highlight the people skills required in a modern day IT department as essential to attracting a more diverse workforce.

A straw poll at one of the ucisa conferences last year revealed that half the delegates at that event had suffered mental health issues. Recognising the symptoms of mental illness can be challenging – Clarke Carlisle and his wife Carrie gave a powerful presentation that highlighted the devastating effect living with depression can have on the individual and those around them. It was a passionate, funny and yet brutally honest presentation that will live in the memories of delegates.

The conference considered the skills required for the CIO both now and in the future. As Michelle Dickinson noted in her closing keynote, a CIO is a creative job as we are responsible for creating digital artefacts and environments. This can mean looking at something and applying it in a different way – a point she illustrated by taking a plastic beaker and creating a chicken in a cup (you had to be there!). Others recognised that leaders needed to be adaptable, to be willing to continue to learn, and have integrity and values. Recognising your own vulnerability, as Clarke and Carrie Carlisle highlighted, is as important as recognising vulnerability in others.

One of the challenges IT departments are facing is delivering changes in pedagogical approach at institutions. Nick Petford opened the conference with a stirring presentation on the move to the new Waterside Campus at the University of Northampton. The campus was designed for the future and core to the digital transformation of the university. His message to rethink students, rethink education, and rethink organisation highlights the breadth of transformation projects – it needs an institutional approach encompassing all areas to deliver effective digital transformation. IT and data were at the core. It was a theme Ian Dunn returned to towards the end of the conference. Institutions need to make effective use of data to inform their operations and planning. We need to meet the changing expectations of our students. They are used to using a blend of tools in their everyday lives and will look to their institution to develop an ecosystem of connected products that support agility and change. Those institutions leading on digital transformation and moves towards new pedagogic models will have IT at their core.

Visit ucisa’s website to find out more: www.ucisa.ac.uk

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