University of Sussex digitizes the student experience

Mark Chillingworth Profile picture for user Mark Chillingworth May 22, 2023
Jason Oliver, University of Sussex CDTO, is putting in new infrastructure foundations to make higher education sustainable, adaptable and digital

An image of some university students sitting outside on the grass
(Image by Naassom Azevedo from Pixabay)

Whether a honeyed stone, a red brick neo-classical institution, or what was termed the plate-glass universities, higher education has always been defined by physical location. However, in the digital age, universities will be defined as much by the online services they provide as their learned corridors, libraries and halls of residence. Over recent years this has led to a number of CIOs entering higher education from outside the sector, as technology becomes increasingly important to the profile of a university. 

Jason Oliver joined the University of Sussex in September 2018 as Director of IT and now, in 2023, is Chief Digital Transformation Officer (CDTO). His job title is reflective of the broader role both he and technology take in a modern university. As CDTO, Oliver is driving the restructuring of how the institution works, teaches, deals with change, meets the needs of its students and becomes more sustainable.  

The 2020s have not been kind to the higher education sector; the pandemic has been swiftly followed by rising inflation, currently 10.1% in the UK, which is higher than mainland Europe's 8.3%. Institutions are competing for international applicants and need to attract overseas students to boost funds. Chancellors are also battling rising energy costs and pay increase demands from staff who are struggling with the cost of living. 

These challenges have increased the need for universities to modernize their offering at all levels. Oliver adds: 

Some 60-70% of income is from students. So how we present ourselves, perform in league tables, and our brand proposition is imperative to getting students into the university, and that drives surpluses for further investment.

Many, including the University of Sussex, had begun modernization programmes before the pandemic sent students home or locked them into their dormitories. Oliver says: 

Before the pandemic, the strategy was to break down the constraints of having a single campus so that students and staff could work effectively wherever they were.

Moving away from a single campus has required universities to embrace technology and learn to deal with disruptive change. And that is now a requisite of academic life; Oliver is leading a Modern Mindset programme at the university to ensure the organization is open to change. Oliver says: 

We had the right strategy to go into the pandemic, as a lot of the thinking had been done - so hybrid teaching, virtual working, lecture capture and subtitles were ready. We were able to fast-track these parts of the strategic direction in response to the pandemic. These are also real benefits to an international student.  

Post-pandemic, we are trying to nail down the right working environment, especially for professional services. We now know that we don't need the same sized footprint of professional services on the campus, but how do we shrink it but make it a place that people want to come in and work at? So we are looking at what is the value proposition for the campus and how do we redesign the technology to make it an equitable experience for everyone on and off the campus.

All change 

Universities will have to get comfortable with the role artificial intelligence (AI) plays in education too. With the rise of ChatGPT, there have been concerns about the impact of the technology on knowledge, learning and qualifications. Oliver is in a positive mood, though and says: 

ChatGPT can create real opportunities and make us think about how we award degrees and the ways that we deliver our pedagogy. It will challenge us to think about how we prove a student has mastery of their subject through less traditional methods.

Although these may sound like wholesale changes to the shape of higher education, Oliver believes the tradition of experimentation, followed by clusters of innovation leading to a subtle change, will prevail. He says: 

It is more nuanced than a big change, higher education is reasonably change-averse at a macro-level. The sector does evolve, but it is a broad church so that trying to do too much at any one time leads to problems.

As a result of the changing economic and technological environment that universities exist within, the role of a university technology leader is changing. Oliver took on the title CDTO in January 2022 and says of his role now: 

My role has evolved massively. I joined as IT Director, then picked up projects and sustainability, as there were gaps in the leadership around those spaces. As CDTO, I am looking at where we are going, and so much of my job is broader than technology. 

We are looking at user journeys and how we communicate with our students and academics, and then what is the digital toolset for that in terms of a digital experience platform (DXP) and customer relationship management (CRM). 

There will always be a technology element, but it is the human element, and how do we make sure that the decisions we make are ethical and sustainable. So my job is people, technology, ethics and sustainability, all of them pushed together and all of them balanced to find the best route for Sussex.

Student experience

The student experience has directed Oliver's technology leadership since joining the university and is the basis for a major digital infrastructure programme. He says: 

When I arrived, there were problems with students being able to make course submissions, like dissertations, as the technology was failing. Stability was a major problem.

On the day Oliver spoke to diginomica, Sussex had signed the contract for the installation of a new network, but remedial work through a managed service from Intergence has increased the performance and reliability of the legacy infrastructure. Oliver says he and the university invest time and resources into their relationship with the students. He adds: 

There is an ongoing dialogue as we create a digital campus for them. The digital campus is about the channel of choice; some students learn best in person, and for others, they want to re-watch a lecture, or if that lecture is not in their first language, then they listen via a language filter. So it is about providing them with all the tools to do their studies to the best of their ability.

Students have direct access to Oliver's IT department, too, via the Digital Connectors programme, which enables students to be members of panels that inform cross-institutional leaders on digital education, the student experience, the library and other areas. He says: 

We are all there together to talk about how to enhance education with digital technology. We also have an increasingly positive relationship with the student union, and we just get out there and talk to the students. For example, we are interviewing students about what the lecture theatre of the future looks like for them. I can make assumptions, but we have got to listen to the student's voice.

Oliver inherited years of under investment into the technology infrastructure and ways of working. This meant that his first focus was to put in place the foundations before IT could, in his words, start adding value: 

At the end of the first week, I sat the team down and said it feels like a seven-year piece of work. The pandemic threw a spanner in the works. We were able to bring some stuff forwards that would have come later, but some of the foundational work didn't progress at the pace I needed it to.

By now, I would have completed a large-scale network replacement, but I have just signed the contract, and it will take two years to roll out. We start digging up the campus next week, and we will have 300 kilometres of cable, enough to reach from our university to Liverpool. When it is completed in 2025, there will be 100% connectivity across the campus, and the knock-on effect for the students will be huge.

Oliver would have preferred to have the network in place before the move to virtual learning and working in order to provide the best possible experience, but like many organizations, the pandemic led to a sudden need to catch up as best as they could. A cloud migration is taking place as the University of Sussex moves to the Microsoft Azure environment. All of which has also changed the shape of Oliver's department, he says: 

To put in modern infrastructure, you need modern skills and modern ways of thinking. When I arrived, everything had been built in-house and was tightly integrated. Now we have a completely different policy, which is best of breed and lightly coupled.

The technology modernization is connected to the sustainability agenda of Sussex, which features prominently on its publicly available strategy document. Oliver explains how this was achieved: 

Sustainability is one of the highest weighted categories in our tendering process. We decided we could live with paying a little more if we found a better partner with the same sustainability ethos as Sussex.

Sussex marked and selected firms based on the sustainability of their supply chain, the partnerships, and waste and recycling performance. This led to Sussex working with Microsoft as well as digital infrastructure consultancy and managed services providers Intergence. Alongside the new infrastructure, Oliver's team will be implementing student information systems, HR applications, developing timetabling, re-platforming the finance department, and new DXP and CRM applications over the next 12 months. All elements in the digital way to teach and run a university. 

My take

As a father about to send his eldest daughter to university (she didn't choose Sussex, in case you wondered), I have been impressed with the breadth and professionalism of services offered by academia today. It was good in my day, but the quality of digital services and connections to the industry really has come on leaps and bounds in 25 years. 

As a parent and CIO writer, I can see how important the work of Oliver and higher education CIOs is. Like so many other sectors, higher education is and will be disrupted by technology-led change; therefore, the technology and, more importantly, the mindset has to be able to respond to these disruptions. 

In the UK, we expect students to carry the burden of debt for their country, so the university has to be totally focused on the student experience and use technology to ensure the experience, tools available and opportunities for success at and beyond university are available to them. Technology is the common thread between the economic need for a highly educated workforce and the education of that workforce.  

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