Having spent over 10years working for the University of Sydney, Nick Gilbert took the plunge to relocate to the UK, develop his career and gain a few new experiences along the way. He started at the University of Surrey in September 2019 as the Head of Service Design. Nick shares his thoughts with the McLean Partnership around all things Higher Education – his experience of the UK versus Australia, the state of technology and many things in-between.
It is a difficult time for the global Higher Education Sector, and Universities are increasingly aware that technology has a key role to play in helping them weather, or prosper through a time of significant disruption and instability.
When I speak to Universities, I hear quite similar things – most tell me that they need to do work on increasing their administrative and operating efficiency, re-thinking or diversifying their business models, considering their data (protecting, increasing and exploiting it), differentiating themselves, looking at their online learning capabilities, along with a grab-bag of other sector trends.
Many of these things have obvious implications for the IT teams, who are increasingly being called on to be dramatically more efficient, and also to be at least a major contributor to, if not actually being in the driving seat of major transformation to business processes and capabilities.
This has led to Universities looking for different capabilities from their technology/digital leaders, looking to hire for a more “business or corporate mind-set”, to address perceptions of cost inefficiency in the service, and for demonstrated experience in digital transformation (sometimes from inside the sector, sometimes from outside) to drive transformation in organisational culture, IT team capabilities and to digitise/improve core University functions/processes. There is a very strong sense that they need something quite different from IT, although it is not always clear that they are quite sure what that is, and what success would look like.
Taking better advantage of technology, and increasing efficiency is in most cases an intensely difficult transformation journey for a University – and requires changes to the way that the whole organisation operates. This is something that can easily be overlooked by leadership teams looking to make a strategic hire and then let them sort it all out. Historic perceptions of technology as a professional service which largely works in the boiler-room of the organisation to make invisible processes and technology work effectively do not easily shift to a “trusted partnership” or “advisory” model, where the technology team is a guide and porter helping plan out the journey and helping the organisation along the way, and organisational governance processes, cultures, decision making time-frames and perceptions of authority all make this a hard shift to make. Adding to the challenge are technology team cultures that still, in many organisations, actually prefer to be quietly operating in the background, interacting with the rest of the University as little as possible, and just getting on with their work tending the machinery.
This shift certainly applies across the two territories that I have most familiarity with — the UK and Australia. In many ways they are incredibly similar. One suspects that this is in no small part due to initial Australian Universities deliberately adopting the style, trappings and mannerisms, and in many cases, people, of established UK Universities. Some differences exist, however, with Australian Universities tending to be on a much larger scale — Sydney, with 60,000+ students, and plans to continue to increase this, operates at a scale that very few UK Universities come close to. This has implications for the type of IT function being run.
The scale lends a tendency towards a higher maturity (although this is not universally the case by any means) – as the organisations scale, they are more likely to have run into intrinsic or extrinsic drivers of capability maturation.
Budgets also tend to be larger – as one increases the scale of operations and revenue, we tend to see more money being spent. This leads to a different approach from partners, and a different tier/scale of partners being interested in working with the Universities. I see dramatically more Universities in the UK working with mid-low tier service providers, who, because of the scale of the organisation, are still able to meet the service and maturity needs of the University (and would not in Australia). The scale/budget disparity also contributes to a significant difference in the scale of pay for technology professionals in Australia. In many cases salaries in Australia are 20% higher than equivalent roles in the UK (and can be 35% or more in some cases). As an Australian shifting to the UK sector this takes some significant expectation adjustment.
The political landscape also cannot be ignored. There is a real sense in the UK HE sector that there is a real, clear and imminent threat to the operation of many Universities, including many prestigious/red-brick, and I see a much greater focus and clarity around the need and drivers for change when I talk to senior leaders. While this exists in some parts of the sector in Australia, as a rule there is still a general sense that “she’ll be right, mate”. Whether the clarity around a need for change is instantiated into the culture of the organisation is a different matter, and prevailing university cultures and the industrial landscape mean that the leadership view on what change is required appears, in many cases, to be being met with significant distrust. Pensions, VC salaries remaining in focus, all paint a picture of deep and complicated cultural challenges.
GDPR is worth reflecting on. While it appears to have forced many Universities’ hands on investing in security with the threat of fines, most organisations that I have spoken to whether in Europe or elsewhere were already aware and anxious about security and privacy issues, and it would be easy to over-state the importance of the regulation. It has certainly focused the conversation and forced rapid action, however, and ensures that security and privacy is part of the conversation in almost all universities when talking to people outside of the Technology team, which is not always the case in Australia, where the most senior technology leader can sometimes struggle to get air-time for conversations in this space.
Moving away from culture to technology – the AU and UK sector are investing in, or talking about broadly similar sets of strategic technologies. Australia’s scale of organisation means that in many cases, where funded, initiatives have the funding to become enterprise game-changers more easily (see Deakin Genie, a very successful AI driven personal assistant for staff/students there), but largely the sectors are talking about the same things, A.I. Security, analytics, insourcing vs external sourcing of capabilities/applications, Smart campuses, iterating and improving the VLE, etc. Largely, the technologies exist to drive the transformation being required, but cultural, funding and focus issues get in the way.
One key point of difference here is the level to which the UK focuses on student experience and outcomes — significantly more so than in Australia. League tables, and individual course data is baked into how the sector operates and this creates a significant focus on, and driver for improvement in student experience. While some crowd-sourced or independently run surveys/assessments exist in Australia, student selection of courses/University, and government funding/public perception is largely independent of the actual experience of the students at the University. While there are challenges with the UK system, the focus it brings is incredibly refreshing.
Over the last three years or so, the corporate services division of the McLean Partnership has quietly gone about its business working with some of the top ranked Universities in the country to help restructure and transform their corporate services teams. For a confidential discussion on how we can help, feel free to contact Paul Soothill, Managing Director on firstname.lastname@example.org