Interview with Paul Featherstone

Interim Partners, speaks to Paul Featherstone about his thoughts on the digital journey in the Higher Education sector. 

digital education

Following a career in IT leadership positions, Paul started working as an Interim in 2012, taking on a number of roles related to outsourcing: Transitioning IT back in house; Transitioning a new contract, delivering a technology-led transformation programme and a broader lead role across supporting services. 

Paul moved into Higher Education in 2015 with a role providing CIO advisory support to the IT leadership team at Durham University, then as CIO, overseeing the delivery of a multi million pounds infrastructure programme, improving the IT operation, reducing cost and developing a digital strategy.

How significant are the costs to Universities in becoming more Digitally compliant? 

Many Universities have struggled to keep up with the pace of technological change, and there is a constant stream of demands to improve IT infrastructure and systems, all of which requires investment. This only forms part of the problem, as, along with the ageing technology, business processes are becoming increasingly ineffective.

Where the investment in technology is in conflict with other priorities such as infrastructure, some difficult decisions have had to be made; learning spaces that need investment for safety or accessibility will always be prioritised with over a few new PCs.

That said, many Universities are considering a different approach: we are seeing a merger of Estates and IT functions, where formerly the widespread pairing of IT and Libraries held sway. In many cases Universities have long worked, with a close collaboration between Estates and IT, ensuring that those links were maintained and that IT formed an integral part of building fabric improvements.

There are some considerable opportunities, however, to invest more in becoming a ‘digital’ organisation, by considering the longer term University strategy. Where our Universities compete internationally, and where space is at a premium, the deployment of digital tools can both increase revenue and reduce overall costs. 

Really embracing ‘flipped’ learning, investing time in using Virtual Learning Environments to their full extent, and investing in automated testing and marking, augmented and virtual reality will all act to attract the best students and help to further differentiate our Universities.

Ultimately investing in digital needs to be considered in the round, and improving student experience is key. Changing processes and becoming more efficient and effective can offset some of the required investment. Making a case for ‘invest to save’ funding, with short ROI periods, may make this more palatable to University leaders.


What are the key challenges in creating a more comprehensive Digital environment for Professional Services/Student & Academic Community?

Creating a more comprehensive digital environment rests on having a digital strategy which articulates a clear vision with buy-in from senior leaders, sufficient investment and a clear delivery plan. 

As with any change, however, the biggest challenge is working with the people involved, and dealing with questions around:

  • How do I get buy-in?
  • How do I get colleagues involved in a way that includes a wide range of views?
  • How do I shape the change in a way that the benefits are visible for everyone and the change is not seen simply as a threat?

Ultimately it is the current and future students that drive the requirements for creating and maintaining a digital environment. The majority of our students are digital natives. These students see the need for something easier, better and more integrated with their merged digital and real life.

Many Universities will have a number of legacy systems in place, there is a small market for student record systems, virtual learning environments and enterprise resource planning (HR, Finance and Procurement mainly). Many of the main suppliers will have long standing relationships and University staff will know these systems in real depth and be very comfortable working with the idiosyncrasies that remain.

In some ways this results in a perfect storm, with increased and increasingly complex demands and a legacy of systems and processes. Left unchecked, this will ultimately cost Universities more, and also have a negative impact on student perception, for both current and potential students.

In meeting these challenges, however, answering the earlier questions will help to increase engagement, bring new ideas and challenge previously accepted norms. Using all resources available is critical to success, and this is where skilled interim executives add real value.


In a more commercially driven sector, is it the student experience that is driving the Digital change?

The student experience remains paramount, and it is important for Universities to attract and retain the best students. What was once seen as a distinguishing factor has now moved into being a hygiene factor – pervasive, high-speed connectivity; mobile access to timetables and virtual learning environments; one-stop shops for student support via a mobile device are some examples.

It is, however, important not to lose sight of those elements that indirectly affect the student experience – the experience of University staff in digital technologies being one of the most significant factors. In many cases the staff are constrained by inadequate systems and out-dated processes. Some Universities are taking the brave steps to fundamentally transform the staff experience, making it more engaging and useful, and gradually removing the barriers, thus allowing academics to focus on education, research and student support.

As well as implementing the right technology and systems, we need to ensure that colleagues are able to exploit these and engage digitally with students. 


What will be the impact on technology and process change on Universities from a day-to-day operational perspective?

Many Universities will have a number of legacy systems in place, there are a relatively small numbers of suppliers of these systems, and there is often limited desire to change them once a relationship has been formed.

The scale of any widespread change is going to be significant. To undertake effective change, there is a need to consider additional resource, in people, systems and technology. All stakeholders need to be involved in, own and drive the transformation. Commissioning transformation directly from a large external partner may prove more challenging in embedding change, with staff undoubtedly feeling that the change is imposed on them. Bringing skilled interim executives who can support the leadership, along with experienced internal and external subject matter experts, will stand a greater chance of success. 


Are Universities resourced with the right people to drive this change?

The sheer scale of these activities is not something that many Universities have undertaken before, and while there will be some great people involved, that additional external support, guidance and experience can help achieve successful change.

However these internal people have day jobs, and there is a tension between how much of that ‘day job’ can be set aside to dedicate time to transformation.  Where there is a focus on digital change, suppliers are generally very willing to be involved, though this needs to be carefully considered to prevent potential conflicts.

Where skilled interim executives come in is in providing an external viewpoint, which will:

  • Articulate the destination and journey to University executives – the ‘art of the possible’
  • Develop a programme that is based on good governance
  • Provide due diligence around suppliers
  • Bring focus on delivery
  • Support and develop internal people


More than anything, as interim executives, we bring an understanding of what may work, what will not and how to navigate to a pragmatic ‘fit for purpose’ solution.


If you would like to explore Interim options for yourself or your considering engaging an Interim expert into your organisation within the Higher Education sector to discuss further on 020 7936 2865 or email



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