UCISA 2013 Pt 4

After a long Wednesday and a late night with the horrors/delights of a Beatles tribute act after dinner (going to Liverpool and seeing a Beatles act – the definition of cliché?), getting up on Thursday morning was a struggle, despite the promise of a hotel breakfast.

The morning’s plenary sessions were a bit of a mixed bag, although they all had value in their way.

The day opened with a talk (presentation here) from Dan Derricott about Lincoln’s student engagement strategy (it was meant to be “Students as producers of IT departments”, but you have to get to the last-but-one slide before IT gets a mention!) which kicked off with a question to the room – what is “student engagement”.

My take on this question (and at a couple of other points in the talk) was a little different to many, as I’m of the view that anything we do that is teaching/student related should be in response to or in anticipation of student need – and the only way to know that is by involving students! Basically, we should just be doing it… So I went looking for the literal definition of “engagement” and found that, aside from all things weddings and appointments, there was one other definition that leapt out at me:

On Twitter some interesting views were expressed from the delegates of some of the “older” Universities who were present about the conflict between tradition and the freedom to innovate, which sparked a little debate (and a little derision). From my experience working at Oxford my feeling is that this represents more the limitations of working in the “center” of a University than any kind of institutional problem – out in the Departments where I worked money was so tightly controlled creative thinking was the only way to get things done!

At Lincoln every service department has a student engagement plan, which is quite a remarkable thing (I can’t imagine it was straightforward to get full coverage) and initially struck me as being excessive – although it has apparently worked well at Lincoln, while feedback on Twitter also suggests it’s worthwhile.

First Lightning Strike session. Spot me if you can.

First Lightning Strike session. Spot me if you can.

The first lightning strike session followed and while we started comparing notes on engagement, we ended talking about the use of students as staff, both in support (one of the Universities on our table had over 100 students helping with IT support) and development roles (giving students the chance of “real life” development experience, working on projects for the University). It was interesting to hear the stories of how well it was working when we’ve just finished replacing our student helpdesk staff with paid posts!

Superficially it would be easy to dismiss Chris Sexton and Bob Rabone’s “A CFO and an IT Director in conversation” (presentation here)as just being a bit of a chuckle. And I couldn’t help but think that they could have stopped after 5 minutes when Chris said “Give me more money” and Bob said “No.” But of course it’s never that straightforward!

Forth Rail Bridge

Forth Rail Bridge

The first part of the session was a bit of Bob’s background, including the fascinating story of how people travelling across the Forth railway bridge would throw small change from the windows, creating an impressive sound as it clattered down the bridge’s ironwork to a sandbar below. A sandbar which Bob would row across to and collect the change!

A Mars bar also appeared, along with a back story that failed to mask the fact that, even though it was only about 10.30, I was already feeling hungry.

Bob was asked what, as CFO, he wants from IT. Surprisingly the first thing he said was “to be able to add up”, which I don’t think was the answer anyone was expecting. Have we all forgotten how to use a calculator? An aside – compare versions of Calculator across different Windows versions, it’s about the only part of the OS that’s looked fairly consistent since Windows 3!

Imagine a big pile of money...

Imagine a big pile of money…

He would also like to see IT be much better at accounting for what we’ve done with the money. Thinking back to all the times I’ve looked at the incomings and outgoings of several parts of my current (and former) employers and wondered “what on earth do they do with all that money?” I can easily imagine people outside IT doing the same to us. I guess the key here would be to put ourselves in other’s shoes – what about our spending would be want to know about everyone else’s spending? I’d hope there would be good PR in doing that, as well as more practical benefits.

Bob asked what IT would like from Finance and without having to think Chris said “procurement people who understand IT” – gaining her a big round of applause from a room of IT professionals who obviously share the same frustration! She also mentioned getting a fair slice of savings made – mentioning improvements in energy efficiency which resulted in a big utilities saving – that was claimed by another department! It doesn’t matter much to the University’s bottom line, but in a world where each department has to demonstrate its value (see the paragraph above!) it’s a valid concern.

Sheffield Arts Tower

Sheffield Arts Tower

Chris also asked about why it was so much easier to get approval for capital spending than new staff posts. The explanation, linking (perhaps too neatly!) back to an earlier discussion on Sheffield’s listed Arts Tower, was basically that when comparing the price of a building over its lifetime with the cost of staff over the same period, the building was better value. His logic made sense and linked with my thoughts from the VC session on the first day about students as shareholders making an investment – although it did differ somewhat from the theme of staff-delivered value that I’d picked up on from the University Showcase sessions.

Near the end of the session Bob shared some of his tips on how to get ahead:

  • Read Thinking, Fast and Slow
  • Listen to Pink Floyd
  • A good proposal does one of three things – “get more sixpences, save sixpences, do something better”
  • Pink Floyd lyrics in a business case raises the chance of it being accepted (apologies to my more academically inclined readers, he didn’t offer any citations to back this up!)
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