Mark Barry joined UEA as IT Director on 1 June – returning to the University after graduating with a BSc in Accountancy in 1982 then spending two years as a Research Associate. He took the role, he says, because he wanted both to return to Norfolk and make a difference in higher education.
“I first arrived in Norfolk as a student and loved it,” he said. “The campus was much smaller then, with only around 4,500 students in total. Although my degree was accountancy, I always knew I wouldn’t be an accountant. My course had a big focus on technology, such as creating electronic sales ledgers, and that’s what I was most interested in.”
Mark went on to become one of the first set of research associates in his field. “The three of us were known as ‘the Krishlets’ after our Prof, Krish Bhaskar, and we focused on research with the motor industry and some teaching,” he said. “I then joined a start-up computer business with other UEA graduates for a year before going on to work with a number of Norfolk companies, including Lotus Cars, Baxter Healthcare, May Gurney and Aviva, where I remained for 12 years.”
He left Norfolk to take up a role with Boots, and was eventually appointed IT Director/CIO in 2016. His interest in higher education was sparked by links with Nottingham and Nottingham Trent universities. “Co-incidentally, my CEO at Boots, Elizabeth Fagan, became a Board Member of the Office for Students and she was recently awarded an honorary degree from Nottingham Trent, so we worked with the universities, and that inspired me,” he said. “It hit me at an emotional level how important it is to nurture talent and give opportunities to students by recruiting them into our IT team and helping them develop their skills.
“Above all, I’ve always wanted to make a difference, so returning to a county I love to join UEA is an amazing opportunity. This is an organisation based on learning, and there’s so much potential to enhance the ability to learn through the application of technology, whether that’s for students or for staff through professional development.
“I’m excited about executing the digital elements of the 2030 Vision and developing a fresh focus on innovation to ensure that technology enhances the work and studies of students, academics and professional services staff,” he said. “We’ve a great baseline from which to move forward, and I’m very grateful for the work Iain Reeman and the ITCS team have done over the past 18 months.
“I believe that digital development is a team game and that there’s room for greater partnership and collaboration across the University. Young people don’t see the difference between the digital and physical worlds and are constantly connected. Their expectations are changing and they want digital services to save time and do things in different ways. I think we can learn from companies like Amazon, Netflix and Airbnb, who have disrupted their sectors by offering different things – and we’re starting to see this in higher education too.
“I believe we need to put students at the centre of our thinking, creating a much more blended experience between digital-enhanced and face-to-face learning. Being led by our students and offering new ways to learn, we can achieve the best-quality outcomes so students can learn in the way that suits them best.
“We’re already piloting initiatives such as lecture capture and are looking across the sector at examples of best practice. It’s about their whole experience, from learning and teaching to welfare and booking accommodation. If we regard students in some respects as our consumers, it’ll help us to provide them with a service that’s focused on their needs, making the technology truly people-centred and assisting them in their learning. That’s quite a cultural change.”
Mark’s background in retail helps him to appreciate the competitive edge that technology can give UEA. “There’s a huge opportunity to be taken,” he said. “Technology can help us reach potential students, recruit them and enhance their experience while they’re here. Higher education is intensely competitive so we need to develop that edge, and we have the opportunity to put the strategy that will deliver it in place as we flesh out the next five years of our plan.”
Mark sees big opportunities to enhance the lives of staff through the application of technology too. “In retail, we often talked about ‘customer journeys’ and I think there are benefits in mapping out a ‘colleague journey’ for professional services and academic staff,” he said. “From that, we can tell how efficient the user experience is and work out ways to streamline it by automating systems, as we are with expenses.”
The many opportunities ahead are not, however, what keeps Mark awake at night – that’s cyber security. “It’s much bigger than a technical issue, but IT is a significant element,” he said. “I liken it to an arms race, where growing numbers of people are equipping themselves to be able to access our data – and higher education is one of the target areas. That means we must continuously strengthen our defences – not just here at UEA but personally too. These people use clever methods and will catch us out in a moment of weakness, so we must take precautions such as using different passwords and regularly updating them, understanding what phishing emails look like and keeping our anti-virus software updated.”
Some three months into his new role, Mark is excited about the future. “We’ve built solid foundations and are now in the position to take a creative approach and offer both staff and students a greatly enhanced IT experience,” he said.