UCISA Plus One winners reflect on UCISA23

28 April 2023 - UCISA Plus One winners reflect on UCISA23


UCISA23 brought together a range of IT leaders from across HE. As part of UCISA’s ongoing commitment to supporting the development of colleagues, we supported 12 individuals to attend UCISA23 through our PlusOne Bursary Scheme.

This blog post is the first in a series presenting the experiences of colleagues who received support through the PlusOne Bursary Scheme.


What were you looking forward to about UCISA23?

Hannah Beeson, Head of Architecture, University of Surrey: “I’ve recently moved into a leadership position at the University of Surrey, moving into the Head of Architecture role in February, so the timing was perfect. I was looking forward to interacting with other leaders, attending the presentations, and, most of all, networking opportunities.”

David Skyers is the Director of Enterprise Applications at SOAS: “I’m no newbie in the world of Higher Education, having been in the industry for over 20 years, but I’m almost always pleasantly surprised at conferences where many universities come together to share insights and knowledge to help each other. This year was my first UCISA conference and based on the theme Digital Leadership in a Post-Pandemic World, it promised to highlight the future challenges and opportunities for digital leaders in education.”

Mohammed Ahmed, Head of IT Service Delivery, “As the nominated Plus One from the University of West London, this was the first time I would be attending the conference. Having heard about the benefits of attending such conferences from Adrian Ellison (Associate Pro Vice-Chancellor and CIO at the University of West London) who is also the Chair to the UCISA Board, I had a lot of insight beforehand of what to expect and to make the most of the networking opportunities. Prior to attending the conference, I admit to experiencing some feelings of imposter syndrome.”


What were your first impressions?

David, “I wasn’t disappointed….. From registration through to the speakers on the day, the conference was very clearly well organised and executed professionally. I was very encouraged to see that every attendee seemed to be on a similar journey, where the student experience is at the heart of what we do, and our focus is very much on digitalising our processes. Of course, some are further along on the journey than others, so there was opportunity to share experiences and learn from past mistakes.”

Mohammed, “There was plenty of clear communication before the event, which makes it nice to set expectations and make sure everyone has what they needed. The check-in process was very warm and welcoming. They had lanyard badges clearly marked with the attendee names; I noticed a bright pink circular sticker on my badge. This was to help UCISA staff identify the newcomers so they could help and guide them throughout the conference.”

Hannah, “I was impressed by the number and variety of attendees; the size of the conference and the range of topics. In addition, the implementation challenge examples were precious in providing honest opinions.”


What were your top three key takeaways having attended?

David, “Talent is difficult to attract and retain. Indeed, the environment in which we work – specifically when it comes to salary and benefits package – makes it difficult to attract and retain talent… It can be extremely difficult to find top talent without paying top money. It’s an age-old challenge in the industry and I hope one day to see universities come together to tackle this issue.”

Hannah, “Karen Stanton from Solent was incredibly inspiring as a VC aware of disruptive technological and societal changes on the horizon, which can be used to improve university and student experiences. She also discussed the importance of the senior team and digital literacy. The “A Seat at the Table” panel discussion mentioned that the CIO role has moved from operational to strategic. The CIO needs to understand the business of the university and research. The key traits to success are using effective metaphors as a communication tool coupled with appropriate gravitas. “Trust, Teamwork and Technology” by Nick Gilbert and Professor Osama Khan from Surrey clearly laid out the benefits of building trust, alignment and understanding between the CIDO and Academic leadership.”

Mohammed, “Day one started off with newcomers’ session which was a quick intro to the conference and what to expect as well as an opportunity to network with other newcomers… The day consisted of several plenaries and showcases ranging from Driving transformational Higher Education through automation and Total Experience technology, Reasons to be cheerful, UCL Invites you to an Agile Experiment as well as others. A seat at the table panel discussion chaired by Karen Stanton, VC Solent University with other leaders from various other institutions including our very own Professor Peter John, CBE, Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive, University of West London. The evening consisted of a drink reception followed by an Informal Dinner at Pins Social. This was a great opportunity to network in an informal environment and have some fun playing pool etc.”

Mohammed, “Day two consisted of various several plenary and showcases ranging from A sustainable approach to building a diverse and disability inclusive team, Technology Talent of the Future – Harnessing the Power of HE, Curriculum management as the foundation of digital transformation and success: What can UK higher education leaders learn from their Australian counterparts, Tackling the Gender Pay Gap in Tech, and various other showcases. The evening consisted of a Conference dinner drinks reception followed by the UCISA 2023 Awards dinner Conference dinner and Awards Ceremony. This was a black-tie event and was the limelight of the conference.”

David, “The second key takeaway was around Agile transformation. I experienced this while I was at UCL, and I saw up close how it changed for the better the process for termly increment planning within IT, by ensuring that the business was also involved in the process. Agile means that IT can forward plan and not be caught out by the unexpected, because there’s greater visibility between IT and the business. You’d be surprised that even within IT, different teams may not know what, for example, Networks or Systems are doing, and whether what they’re doing could affect their services.”

Hannah, “John Hemingway discussed “Durham University’s AI Journey”, including their key drivers and approach. They started small and ensured the deliverables were manageable, working closely with the data protection team to ensure ethical boundaries and data ownership were clearly defined.”

Hannah “There were several sessions on equality and diversity, helping to demonstrate the value of an inclusive mindset. My key takeaways were building a diverse, inclusive team requires honest reflection and positive action. In addition, leaders should encourage psychological safety within their teams.” <.David, “Everyone can change the world. Tech entrepreneur Mateo Salvatto’s presentation left the greatest impression on me. Entitled “Everyone can change the world”, Mateo told a story of how his love for tech led him to create a solution that empowers people of different abilities. I was absolutely amazed at how someone so young had not only identified a problem based on his own personal experience but had the know-how and confidence to create an app that is now being used in 4 continents and 45 different countries around the world to help people communicate. It certainly shows that IT can change and transform lives.”

Mohammed, “Day three like days one and two continued with some plenary and showcases including The 7 big DEI mistakes, Tackling Today’s Student Engagement Challenges, Trust, teamwork and technology: building a culture of educational innovation at scale, Professionalising HE digital transformation, The day in the life of an incident followed by Conference closing remarks by Adrian Ellison, Associate Pro Vice-Chancellor and CIO, University of West London and UCISA Chair and lunch and networking.”


What would be your top recommendation for someone attending UCISA23 for the first time?

David, “It would have been great to see more demos from suppliers… That said, it was a really good conference.”

Hannah, “Travel to the conference the day before, if possible, to get acquainted with the hotel and location and be ready to hit the ground running when the conference begins. Avoid sitting with people you work with or already know – push yourself to meet as many new people as possible! The days are long but make the most of it – it’s a fantastic opportunity to learn a lot, build up your contact base, and have lots of discussions!”

Mohammed, “Overall, I want to emphasise that visiting the UCISA23 Leadership Conference is highly recommended for upcoming and current leaders in HEI, there is a lot to take home and a lot of opportunities to network….it was clear that representation from the ethnic minorities at leadership level in HEI’s requires a lot more work. UCISA is doing great work in this field and the introduction of the PlusOne scheme also helps to bring the underrepresented to participate… I had a great time networking and learning. UCISA’s hard work and dedication made this event a huge success and I am grateful for all that UCISA did to make it happen. The UCISA23 Leadership Conference was a great opportunity for me to learn more about what amazing work is being done within the sector and to connect with other professionals in this field. I would highly recommend to all newcomers to attend the next UCISA Conference and to participate in other UCISA activities, by doing so we can make our contribution to UCISA being a heterogeneous community working for the same vision.”