Event review: UCISA15

By Jason Bain, Assistant Director of IT at Newcastle University

More than 300 delegates, 27 speakers and 93 exhibitors came together in Edinburgh between 18 and 20 March to create UCISA15, the Annual Conference of senior IT management from across the higher and further education sectors 

Following the opening of the Conference by Professor Julian Jones, the Vice-Principal of Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Mary Curnock Cook, the Chief Executive of UCAS, gave a very informative presentation about the evolution of UCAS from a clearing house to a technology company, and the first true sector-wide shared service. It stirred a few memories amongst some (but certainly not all) delegates of the days of UCCA and PCAS, and plotted the near exponential growth in HE admissions in the UK from 1962 to 2014. There were a number of thought-provoking quotes, but probably the most notable were “every pound spent on a legacy system is a pound that isn’t spent on improving customer experience,” and “IT leaders need to be leaders and communicators first and IT specialists second.”

Tim Kidd from Jisc Technologies and Chris Sexton from the University of Sheffield then gave a joint presentation ‘When networks go bad’, demonstrating the heavy reliance universities have on reliable operational networks as well as the impact of clear, accurate and effective communications during major incidents. The remainder of the day was split between Business Showcases (and without our corporate sponsors, UCISA15 would not have been such a success) and poster sessions from university projects.

Day two of the Conference was opened by a thought-provoking (given the number of tweets) presentation from Emer Coleman, the CEO of DSRPTN, looking at how technology is a disruptive force for good. Alison Allden, Chief Executive of HESA, then took the delegates on a voyage of discovery regarding data that universities have to provide, totalling over 500 requests from 90 different agencies per annum, and how handling such data requests could be streamlined in the future.

Aline Hayes, Director of ICT at Sheffield City Council, gave an entertaining and informative talk about her transition from previous roles in further and higher education to local government. Aline stated that many of her assumptions about the transition were incorrect and also outlined some of the key differences between the sectors.

The morning session of day two ended with Professor Jeff Haywood, Vice-Principal of Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh looking ahead to 2025 and the changes a more technology rich world will have on post-compulsory education. Some very provoking thoughts from Jeff: Bring Your Own Technology is a prize that we’ll be foolish to ignore; video and audio are easier to use than text and this has already started, e.g. Snapchat.

The afternoon session began with a presentation about cybercrime from Charlie McMurdie, a Senior Crime Adviser at PwC and former head of Economic and Cyber Crime at the Metropolitan Police who also led the Police Central eCrime Unit and the National eCrime programmes. Charlie gave an overview of current cyber trends and how business and law enforcement are transforming to meet the challenges caused by such trends. Operational case examples were used to illustrate both the scale and impact of cybercrime which is now stated to be in the top four biggest concerns for the UK government.

The remainder of the afternoon was occupied with 10 university showcases covering a wide range of topics and institutions. The Conference dinner took place at the impressive National Museum of Scotland, with an after dinner speech provided by the very entertaining Gyles Brandreth. Gyles’ career has ranged from being an MP, Whip and Lord Commissioner of the Treasury in John Major’s government to starring in his own award-winning musical revue in London’s West End. He is a prolific broadcaster (in programmes ranging from Just a Minute and Wordaholics to QI and Have I Got News For You), an acclaimed interviewer (principally for the Sunday Telegraph), a novelist, children’s author and biographer.

The final day of the Conference had an unusual start, both in terms of timing and location. Following the possible excesses of the Conference dinner on the preceeding evening, day three normally commences slightly later in the morning and inside a lecture theatre. However, this year the advertised start time and location was 8.30am outside the Conference Centre: the morning of Friday 20 March 2015 heralded a partial solar eclipse, and despite some clouds, Edinburgh offered an excellent vantage point to view this phenomenon.

Moving inside the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, Nick Jones, VP and Distinguished Analyst from Gartner UK gave us a whistle-stop tour of his thoughts on the trends in mobile business and technology over the next five years with some wise words of caution around the use of location/proximity data and its impact on privacy.

Michael Wignall, National Technology Officer from Microsoft UK provided delegates with his view of the future where digital life meets digital work, blurring the distinction between home and work. The writer, producer, musician and broadcaster, LJ Rich led the highly entertaining and interactive penultimate session. She explained and demonstrated the latest technology concepts including driverless cars, machines that guess what humans want and wearable technology, and left us with the question: can those who cannot afford technology compete with those who can?

The Conference concluded with an informative and inspiring insight into the life of one of the UK’s most respected athletes, Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson. Tanni explained what it takes to achieve in life, and how she now uses the lessons learned in the sporting world to great success in her political career in the House of Lords. She believes that disabled people still face barriers that need to be removed, and calls for more genuine engagement rather than political rhetoric.

The Conference presentations and webcast recordings are available for review on the UCISA website, https://www.ucisa.ac.uk/groups/acog/Events/2015/ucisa2015.aspx

Next year’s Conference will be in Manchester 16–18 March 2016, so do add to your diary now! 

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