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University CIOs welcomed into the spotlight

The pandemic shines a light on the increasing value and critical contribution of IT in universities, and the pivotal role chief information officers (CIOs) can play in strategic decision-making. 

But will this elevation of the CIO endure to drive academic and business goals beyond the current crisis? Six IT leaders across the country share their thoughts.

Emma Woodcock

The CIO's position as a cross-functional business leader has fallen into place during the pandemic. Emma Woodcock, CIO of York St John University, suggests

“the role is being perceived differently. We are being heard more than we ever have been”.

Jason Oliver, director of IT at the University of Sussex, says perceptions are changing.

Jason Oliver

IT directors are no longer portrayed as sitting in the basement thinking about the network and end-user computers but recognised as active and engaged leaders. It’s a role in which Jason analyses situations and considers all variables - such as process, value, the commercial and reputational ramifications of decisions and, ultimately, the role that technology has in meeting these demands.

“It might be that technology isn't the answer, and by analysing needs, it's now much more in the CIO’s gift to make that call.”

Jim Nottingham

It’s a change in dynamic that goes beyond the CIO. Technical teams that have traditionally faced difficulties working across the university are now able to do so far more effectively, says Jim Nottingham, CIO at University of the Arts, London. He notes that, while 2020 has been transformative,

“the lessons learnt in terms of efficiency and the student experience will need to be further embedded.”

Embedding blended learning

As blended learning strategies become increasingly integral to wider organisational strategies, IT leaders emphasise that developing the digital skills staff and students need for a better teaching and learning experience is more important than ever.

Stuart Brown

“Staff experience and wellbeing needs to be thoroughly thought out, while skillsets and more training should be considered to achieve quality with staff who are comfortable using the technology,”

says Stuart Brown, director of digital technology services at the University of Reading.

Emma Woodcock believes that

“this is now about digital empowerment and understanding. Transformation comes from the people that use the technology being comfortable with it and willing to explore and innovate using it.”

Jisc’s 2020 digital experience insights survey of 2,677 teaching staff reveals that almost 80% of respondents feel motivated to use technology in their teaching. Regardless of this enthusiasm, only 29% agree their organisation provides guidance on the digital skills needed in their jobs. Just 14% agree they have time to explore new digital tools and approaches, while 12% agree they have the chance to assess their digital skills.

Paul Westmore

Despite the seismic shift to online learning and teaching in 2020, ensuring all staff are confident delivering blended learning is not without its challenges. IT director at the University of Plymouth, Paul Westmore, suggests that, while there is some understanding of the university’s digital strategy across the academic community and many who want to change their practices, others remain uncomfortable with blended learning and favour face-to-face teaching.

“The biggest challenge now is how do we help bring everyone along on this journey with us?”

It is essential that students are involved in the development of blended learning practice so that the learning opportunities offered, are both flexible and accessible. While there are huge variations in perceptions of blended learning among university staff, Jason Oliver believes that

“the one commonality is the importance of co-creation with students.”

This is one of the key recommendations from the sector-wide learning and teaching reimagined report.

Digital is increasingly prevalent across UK tertiary education, and although the sector recognises we have, in many cases, arrived here by accident rather than by design, Emma believes

“we need to refine our digital offer and make it sustainable”

Universities have accepted that blended learning is the future, but Jason comments that there is another adjustment, which may take longer:

“I think now the challenge is understanding how the administration of the university needs to adapt to accommodate this ‘new normal’.”

Building on the lessons of a crisis

Digital change was already underway across many universities before the pandemic hit, but the crisis has provided a sense of urgency. Jim Nottingham believes the University of the Arts London has made more progress with operational and strategic change during the pandemic than it has in the previous five years.

Trevor Baxter

Nevertheless, Trevor Baxter, director of IT innovation at King's College London, deems there’s still a way to go before digital is at the heart of every university’s culture, saying

“we need to learn to adapt more quickly to keep up with the speed of digital change.”

A sentiment that’s reflected in the learning and teaching reimagined report, which recommends universities put digital at the heart of university culture to achieve business goals and student success.

A common theme across the sector is the desire to leave behind the stress of existing in a reactive state for such a sustained period of time.

“It is challenging working on a new digital strategy while juggling emergency work and business as usual on top of it all,”

acknowledges Paul.

“I welcome the chance to take stock and focus on some long-term planning – albeit using the lessons learned from the last few months,”

says Emma.

“What started out as an emergency scenario response is now becoming ‘business as usual’, and our job is to finesse where we are right now, as well as explore how we can leverage further lessons learned; especially how can we increase student numbers by adjusting our offer to introduce more innovative and inclusive approaches to higher education,”

says Jim.

Trevor also believes these changes will make education more inclusive and therefore

“allowing anyone to learn with us and gain a degree through continual improvement to our online offerings, which could potentially widen our market”.

Collaboration is key

Many universities had already been developing strong relationships between their CIOs and other university leaders to help drive student success. With the new acceptance that universities will always be providing a blended learning offer, these partnerships are more critical than ever.

“Collaborative working has been fundamental,”

says Emma, whose team has developed rich partnerships by working with academic colleagues.

“This is helping the institution to innovate more freely, within the boundaries of our existing technologies, and explore solutions in a more joined-up way - even though we are not physically together on campus.”

CIOs have used this spotlight to innovate and transform how IT has traditionally been viewed and are persuading the rest of their organisations to embrace technology and think differently.

“Every activity we now undertake as a university is in some way, underpinned by technology. And because of that, it's not a case of having to ‘sell’ digital, it’s about having to communicate the value of digital initiatives appropriately so that they can be prioritised,”

says Jason.

IT strategy or community strategy?

Likewise, Stuart has experienced a shift in mindsets at Reading University, now that digital as a critical success factor is being recognised by the university’s executive board, senate, council, audit and risk holders, and beyond.

“I now have a mandate to put together a digital strategy, and investment in digital (while not increasing) has been protected where other services have been hit.”

The journey towards a digital strategy is ongoing across the sector:

“Debate still occurs over fundamental differences in approach and the types of vocabulary used,”

says Jim. However, it is expected that University of the Arts London will be producing a new strategy from 2022, in which digital will feature heavily.

“It is welcome news that the application of technology will move out of being recognised as a transactional service and into a key set of initiates that can drive the university forward,”

he adds.

At Sussex, the team went through months of consultation with stakeholders.

“We identified how digital would help deliver the wider strategic framework; it wasn’t developed in isolation and, as a result, it’s the community’s strategy, not just something for IT,”

Jason says.

York St John University is about to publish its digital strategy - and it is ambitious. Supported at executive level, it aims to invest in capabilities, rather than individual projects. The university will also give as much care and attention to the design of its digital campus as it does to its physical campus, as it explores ways to empower its community to capitalise on the technologies that are made available.

“It is a powerful strategy, influenced by lessons learned during the pandemic. As CIO, I am at the centre of the strategic thinking for digital - all digital decisions made at executive board level have my input,”

says Emma.

New world

“My hope is that, by 2030, IT as a standard function will not be needed,”

says Jason.

“Digital competency, digital culture and digital intelligence will be embedded to such an extent that people think about digital as a part of their everyday life, rather than something separate.”

Trevor believes

“it should be much more about supporting people.”

Ten years or more into the future, Trevor considers a scenario where learning is all online and

“the university itself becomes about networking and life skills, potentially a location where people study at multiple online institutions but use the spaces to grow and interact with other learners. A bit like a learning hotel.”

Whatever the university of the future looks like, Stuart expects to

“see improvements in staff productivity, efficiency and collaboration, as well as a better work/life balance”,

while students will have

“more opportunities to network and collaborate with peers, as well as more contact time with tutors”.

Emma feels cautiously hopeful.

“The wardrobe door to Narnia opened and everybody stepped through. We are now in a different world of endless possibilities and potential hazards - and we are still exploring it. The difference is that this Narnia is real. The wardrobe doors are closed behind us, and a new and challenging digital world awaits.”


Learning and teaching reimagined demonstrates the sector’s acknowledgement of the role digital must play in building back a better experience for teaching and learning post-COVID. Hearing the sector’s ideas and visions for the future of education and research, and seeing all this happen collaboratively, has been truly inspiring. 

"We’d like to thank those who contributed to this article, many of whom are members of the HE IT Leaders Focus Group I chair. The group work with us to understand the strategic role of CIOs as part of a university leadership team, and shape activities and content to support the CIO community.

"If you’d like to get involved please contact our head of community engagement, Natasha Veenendaal (natasha.veenendaal@jisc.ac.uk) for more information.”

Jonathan Baldwin, managing director higher education, Jisc

Jisc’s annual Networkshop conference (27-29 April 2021) has more information about the technology and infrastructure to help future-proof your college, university or research centre.