Despite being little more than 48hrs long, the excellent UCISA 2013 Conference managed to pack quite a lot in, ranging from high level debates about the role of IT in University decision making, to the nitty-gritty of server virtualisation. Overall I found the experience to be fantastic from both a personal and professional perspective. If you thought I tweeted a lot, wait until you find out the volume of notes and tweets I’ll be turning into blog entries!
I need to start plotting my attendance at UCISA 2014…
My UCISA experience began before the main programme with an introduction session for first timers, where we picked up a few pointers about the venue and some other useful tips such as the invaluable explanation about the seating layout in the main hall. I certainly felt more engaged in what was being discussed during the sessions that I was up at the front on a table than when I found myself stuck at the back of the room (and the power-strips were a definite bonus).
The first afternoon’s programme focused on “Our Business” and kicked off with a welcome from Sir Howard Newby, VC at Liverpool, who delivered a pitch that Liverpool tourist information would be proud of. Certainly I’d like to visit Liverpool again, although judging by the number of scavenging hen parties I spotted walking back to the station I’d maybe not go at the weekend. If nothing else, visiting the listed gents toilets at the Philharmonic feels like prime “bucket list” fodder.
The first real event was a Question Time session with 3 VCs (Sir Howard Newby – Liverpool, John Coyne – Derby, Nigel Weatherill – Liverpool John Moores) complete with the BBC Question Time theme tune. Consensus afterwards was that in general the answers had been diplomatic, verging on the evasive (well they are VCs after all), but for me it offered an insight into both the shared concerns and the sometimes troubled relationship between the IT community and senior leadership.
The first question was around a growing expectation for 24/7 services and, critically, support. The general view was that this was increasingly important and it was acknowledged that currently this is largely done on a best effort/goodwill basis – which is appreciated, but not sustainable. Outsourcing services was cited as a possible way around the problem to a degree (with email being an obvious one) – with a caveat that you shouldn’t outsource where you’re expected to provide a “personal service”.
Having been concerned that the programme for the conference was very teaching/student focused I was pleased that there was a question about the challenges associated with opening up research data (I did end up being disappointed about coverage of research, but more on that another time). However I was quite surprised at the rather cautious view the panel had on the whole idea, with concerns about who pays for it, freedom of information and the perils associated with our fragmented funding model resulting in councils and corporates having wildly different demands for sharing data.
By far the most interesting question asked was about whether or not IT Directors should have a seat at the executive table. Chris Sexton has probably summed up their views best as “Needs of IT need to be made and considered at top table, can be done without sitting at it”, but during the discussion (which included quite a bit of audience involvement) I felt that the mood in the room changed noticeably!
Next the panel were asked about running HE like a business, who our shareholders and customers are and whether we should have more corporate style governance as a result. I saw students as both our shareholders and (of course) customers – my thinking being that in handing over their fees to the University they don’t just buy goods/services, they are investing in the institution as well (even if they don’t realise it).A comment made later in the session reinforced this view for me – that some students don’t just buy knowledge, but they buy a brand.
Their £9k/year doesn’t just get them some teaching time and exams, a good chunk of it will go into projects (buildings etc.) which will influence future perception of their University and, by extension, the future value of their degree.
The panel also talked about student input and the NSS, confirming my view (and judging by the sea of nodding heads, everyone else’s) about the limitations of national surveys like the NSS (which one panel member pointed out was effectively an “exit interview” – when you can’t do anything to change their experience!).
There was a little discussion of the IPPR report titled “An Avalanche is Coming” which discusses MOOCs and their potential impact on the sector. Much like the question on sharing research output I was surprised to find all 3 VCs were unsure about it all, pointing out that (so far) no one had found a way to monetize the concept and asking whether this was a real trend, or just what is considered fashionable. Sir Howard defined MOOCs as being “Nuremberg Rally Pedagogy”, which I thought was a fantastic phrase.
It was an interesting session and it was a shame it wasn’t longer as some questions were floating around on Twitter that would have been good to pose to the panel. If nothing else I suspect we could have done another 45 minutes on IT representation at the Executive level and transparency/communication within HE management!