The Chief Information Officer (CIO) in Higher Education is a critical leadership position.  Increasingly complex needs from both students and staff, along with an increase in external security threats, means CIOs are tackling more than ever before.   Building on previous work from SUMS on creating great Digital Learning Strategies, SUMS Managing Consultant Claire Taylor MBE and SUMS Associate Consultant Graham Hill now consider the future of the Chief Information Officer role in Higher Education - and through that lens, the future focus of IT services.

Current Challenges for a CIO in Higher Education

Service departments in Higher Education (HE) are serving a highly complex and diverse community in an ever-changing environment – and this is no different for IT services.  The trend towards mobile, collaborative, partnership, and remote working has been accelerated at a significant pace by the pandemic. Perhaps unsurprisingly, student satisfaction with service provision, as measured by NSS questions IT (Q18) and Learning Resources (Q19) dropped significantly in 2020/21 compared to previous years with few exceptions[1].

There are also challenges from cyber-attacks with risks increasing since 2019. In 2020, 15 UK universities were seriously impacted, and in 2021 there have been a further 18 instances.  These had a direct impact on universities, with average estimated costs of £2m per incident and average service disruption affecting major campus services for 10-20 days, depending on how prepared they were for an attack.

The user base is varied: IT services must cater for the needs of students, academics and professional services.  They support the delivery of teaching and research, the running of the institution, as well as meeting the needs of external statutory bodies and university partners.

The trend across UK HE is to use multiple, high-specificity, commercially developed platforms with a move towards cloud and software as a service (SAAS).  Institutions are moving away from owned and managed systems on in-house hardware. Integrating and streamlining systems from multiple providers – to provide a consistent service to users with high expectations – remains a challenge that is being met with growing professionalism.

C-Suite Style Leadership or Service Director?

The role of the leader of IT varies across the sector.  One SUMS member asked us to review this role and look at the trends.  We explore both in terms the breadth of service managed (service convergence) as well as the responsibility to lead transformational change in the digital sphere.

Starting from the bottom and building upwards, our research has shown continued coordination of IT, with a number of universities stating that most or all IT roles have been brought into a unified IT service.

Some organisational models saw a central IT Service, led by a Head of IT with distributed IT operations in faculties and some professional service areas, sometimes with a dotted line into IT but managed outside of IT.

distributed IT

The predominant approach remains a single centralised university IT Service, led by a CIO/IT Director, perhaps managing devolved operational units with dotted lines to specialist academic/ professional services.

Some universities have converged IT and Library Services either as a single budget/planning unit with separate operations, or in some cases fully converged and integrated ‘information services’.  Some have gone even further with ‘super convergence’ of learning support services (known colloquially as the Herts Model) including other student-facing operations comprising elements of timetabling, careers, disability support, teaching quality, etc. Here, the service can also operate with an integrated front-end customer service team.

Our research showed that there is no single dominant approach to reporting arrangements and structures for Library and IT.  Where there is a CIO role, the reporting route varies, usually into a member of the Vice Chancellor’s Executive Board

Service Convergence in UK Higher Education: To Be or Not to Be?

Outside of HE there has been significant growth in serviced office space; an exchange of capital investment in physical and IT infrastructure for a recurrent cost of lease or rental. There has also been a growth in the outsourcing of IT services to commercial organisations such as Accenture, Tata Consultancy Services and Cognizant, but these have not broken through at scale into HE. JISC is a great example of a shared infrastructure service across the UK HE Sector and is consolidating data services with the takeover of HESA.

SUMS has explored shared service models for the provision of professional services, but these models haven’t had the impact on the sector that organisations like HEFCE and JISC had expected. While there have been some mergers, with smaller institutions becoming faculties of larger institutions and therefore gaining a larger IT and library service, the consolidation or sharing of professional services across independent organisations has not transpired in HE.

Within organisations, there have been several models of convergence as functions have been brought together under shared leadership.  The following diagram brings together the various aspects that were converged in the models we saw in our research.

In the previous section, we outlined the convergence of the operational and transformational aspects of IT. There has been a similar convergence in estates operations and transformation as shown here in shades of red with Estates Directors taking on responsibility for facility operations typically including security, parking, cleaning, reception, mail, transport and so forth.


Model 1
The first model of convergence uncovered in the research was the model in which aspects of IT have been converged with library and academic services to create a converged Library and Computing Services under the leadership of a CIO.  Several other institutions implemented this model in the later 2000s – a couple of which have since split library away again. The Herts Model includes timetabling within the converged service. There are challenges to this model in terms of appointing a CIO who has the requisite skills and experiences to lead such a varied portfolio.

Model 2
Two institutions within our comparator set had converged IT and Estates Directorates.  This has advantages in the transformation of the physical estate to support new digital approaches and raises the importance of the digital agenda. There are challenges associated with finding a leader who has the necessary experience and skillset to combine both the physical and virtual aspects of the portfolio as well as managing such a large budget and project mandate.  Although, this potentially provides the ability to move between physical and virtual at a greater pace and with a strategic overview (estates expenditure is normally at least an order of magnitude greater than technology expenditure).  You can read more on this in SUMS’ previous post on The Campus of the Future: An Interplay Between Virtual and Physical Environments.

Model 3
A final model seen within the comparator set was a super-converged service which included a wider number of corporate services.  This could be as shown within the figure to the right. This model provides a strategic overview of all the university’s change projects and investments. This model significantly increases the size, scale and scope of the converged service and again places challenges to identify a leader who can manage such a large service effectively. This is almost the role of some Chief Operating Officers (COO), but they are normally overseeing distinct directorates within the portfolio with appropriately skilled and experienced senior leaders running the professional services.

A decade ago the sector saw a growth of programme or project management offices within the IT Directorate.  There were advantages to the use of project management approaches more widely across institutions to manage risk.  Some institutions have since spun out these units into separate organisation units or into Strategic Programmes and Change Offices.  As universities have invested in significant business change projects, supported by technology, they have identified advantages from having a holistic overview rather than technology-only focus.

What Does this Mean for Digital Transformation in UK Higher Education?

The importance of digital transformation for our institutions has been accelerated by the pandemic, primarily as a result of remote learning and working.  We asked institutions how they managed their digital portfolios, from changes in infrastructure to changes teaching and learning delivery and capabilities development across the organisation. Top-rated universities have specific digital teams which are driving university strategy. The pandemic has accelerated digital change and re-positioned the digital teams.  Previous work has highlighted the importance of a well thought through digital strategy, developed by the CIO or equivalent and with responsibility for its delivery.   The commitment of the whole team at the top table is essential to the success of the digital effort across the institution.

For horizon-scanning, comparator research or any other support in the area of digital services, please contact SUMS Managing Consulting Claire Taylor



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