It may seem odd to think of university students as discerning and highly demanding customers of further education service providers, but that’s exactly how they see themselves these days. They pay a lot for their degree courses and they are keenly aware that they have plenty of choice when it comes to selecting a university.
One of the most important issues for many students is the quality of technology and the service provided. They want the best in-room internet access they can get, 24/7 support and easy access to lecture materials, notes and supporting texts. They also want comprehensive ‘Bring Your Own Device’ support and excellent and plentiful facilities through the campus. Furthermore, they demand all the IT they need to run their social lives, whether that’s online gaming or maintaining constant contact with their friends via Skype.
The price of IT failure can be terrifying for university senior management. Word gets round like wildfire through social media, and grumpy students do not hold back on how they describe IT failures, especially when the internet goes down at 2am just when they are in the middle of trying to file an essay that’s due in at 9am and nobody is answering on the help desk.
IT performance is such a sensitive issue for students that any outbreak of negative comment about things that have gone wrong at any university will definitely have an impact on the reputation of that establishment around the world. It doesn’t take much for students with choices to find a reason to take a university off their shortlist.
All this goes to explain why so many universities place what they call the Student Experience at the core of their development strategies. University management teams look at all aspects of life for potential students – the quality of teaching and support services, communications, accommodation, libraries, catering and much more besides – and focus on how they can deliver the best possible experience for incoming students.
In most universities, IT Directors play a key role in the delivery of this strategy because technology is a thread that runs through so many core elements of the student experience. This places huge pressure on IT departments, many of which are under budget pressures, to deliver a consistently high level of service to students based on the best possible infrastructure.
But it doesn’t end there. IT Directors also face the challenge of keeping up with advances at competing universities not just in the UK, but all over the world. So for instance, live broadcasting of lectures is now quite common as are tutor-cams, whereby tutorials can be delivered remotely. And further down the track, the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are already making headway. MOOCs could well be the harbingers of low-cost online degrees from mainstream universities.
Leaving aside the need to demonstrate to students a desire to think ahead and keep these technology advances in view, IT directors face many other more immediate challenges. For a start, universities are not just centres of learning: they are also sports centres, conference venues, research centres and even hotels. All these different functions are essential elements of most universities’ business models and each one of them makes separate and sometimes very different demands on the IT department. It’s like running several different companies in various fields all at the same time.
Then there’s the basic IT infrastructure needed to administer such a diverse organisation as a modern university and maintain standards of service across all its forms and functions. Quality of service, upgrades, licensing and so on, as well as finding the right combination of external and internal IT resources and expertise to deliver results on time and within budget, are yet more illustrations of the intense pressure bearing down on IT directors.
All this has brought the issue of Programme Portfolio Management into sharp focus for many IT directors within the Higher Education sector. With a typical IT department running up to 60 projects a year it’s crucial for IT directors to have clear insight into the status of every project on a regular basis.
My experience of working with clients in the higher education sector, such as the University of Surrey, has shown me the importance of spotting problems with milestones within key projects which are likely to affect several other subsidiary or related projects early on.
The danger with programme management is opacity; if you give PMs the opportunity to sort out problems and delays behind the scenes while reporting that everything is on track, then you increase the risk of over-runs or failure because of multiple missed milestones.
The Higher Education IT sector is dynamic, intense and crucial to the whole business model of institutions. Proper programme management software and outcome driven methodologies are essential elements in the risk mitigation of project delivery and fulfilment of the student experience goals.