What’s keeping FE leaders awake at night?

Headshot of Robin Ghurbhurun
Robin Ghurbhurun

We asked about their challenges for the coming year – and priorities have changed

Following the disruption of the pandemic and the resulting acceleration in the use of technology across further education and skills, I believe that the sector is entering a new age of digital enlightenment – a shift that’s largely being driven by artificial intelligence (AI).

And this comes across loud and clear in our newly released 2024 FE leadership survey, which shows AI shooting up from 14th place last year to share the top spot with cyber security as the two most impactful issues for the sector in the coming year.

Whereas in previous years IT infrastructure was seen as the top priority, 58% of respondents now cite AI and cyber security as far greater challenges than IT infrastructure (39%).

Here’s what 383 FE leaders and practitioners told us about their main concerns - and how Jisc is helping them address those challenges.

Unlocking the benefits of AI

FE leaders are evidently keen to grasp the emerging benefits of AI-augmented education, highlighting the potential of generative AI tools to reduce workload, streamline processes and improve learner experiences. However, they also have valid concerns about its ethical use, and emphasise the need for training if staff and students are to use it effectively – which is confirmed by our latest report on student perceptions of generative AI.

We continue to focus on helping our FE members understand the myths, opportunities and threats surrounding the use of generative AI.

In order to get the best out of AI tools, college staff told us they need training to improve their general capability and proficiency in AI. To this end, we have developed a suite of training sessions which are included in Jisc membership, and our AI primer is updated regularly to include the most up-to-date information on recent advancements and their impact on education. For senior FE leaders our AI in education maturity model has also been updated to reflect the 2024 landscape.

A great example of how we work with the sector to improve AI skills is our piloting of promising AI tools where we give members direct experience of implementing them (with the support and guidance of Jisc experts) while we evaluate the benefits for the sector. We’ve just published the results of a successful pilot of Teachermatic which showed that, as well as building AI literacy among FE staff and exposing them to its capabilities in a controlled environment, it demonstrably saves them time compared to traditional methods.

To support colleges who are just starting on their AI journey, we’ve worked with the Association of Colleges (AoC) to define six guiding principles for the use of generative AI and provide guidance on how senior FE leaders can prepare learners for AI in the workplace.

And, on a national policy level, we are supporting the department for education in developing a vision for AI in FE in England.

I would also encourage members to join our UK-wide and Wales-specific AI communities of practice where we can all share knowledge, find common solutions to problems and collaboratively unlock the potential of AI in FE.

Facing the rise in cyber threats

Fuelled by some high-profile incidents across the sector, the awareness of the importance of cyber security has risen: this year, 20% of respondents cited it as their top single priority. And for good reason. A cyber attack can bring an institution to its knees, incur huge costs and cause incalculable reputational damage.

We have a long and successful track record of helping members identify vulnerabilities and take corrective action.

As their first line of defence, every college should take advantage of the free cyber services that are included in their Jisc membership.

The growing number and severity of cyber threats means that monitoring is key to effective defence, and our new cyber security threat monitoring service delivers critical alerts on your infrastructure 24/7, 365 days a year. We’re also looking to make it easier for colleges to build their cyber defence strategies in a way that best meets their needs with an integrated security operations centre.

And, once again, the power of the community is important in this space. With more than 2,000 active members from all areas of the education sector, our cyber security community group offers online training courses and opportunities for members to share timely threat intelligence and raise current security concerns or ideas – so don’t hesitate to get involved.

Optimising the IT infrastructure

IT infrastructure may have fallen behind AI and cyber in terms of priorities, but FE leaders are still concerned about optimising cloud solutions, improving efficiency and upgrading their digital estates in the face of rising costs all round.

The rise in blended learning has meant that better connectivity to enable learners and staff to work across the campus and beyond is essential. In response, we’ve come up with innovative new ways to provide more connectivity for FE members.

To enhance the learning experience where access is limited, we’ve launched extending eduroam, a cost-effective solution to ensure seamless wifi connections in off-campus locations.

We’re developing SD-WAN and mobile access connectivity solutions which offer more flexible ways for members and users to connect.

And we continue to roll out second fully funded 1Gbit/s connections for our FE members to bolster their network resilience and business continuity.

Shaping the future together

There are exciting times ahead as the new age of digital enlightenment continues its rapid progress. New developments in AI and cyber security will continue to change the landscape of education, and the FE sector must adapt - all the while with Jisc there to provide support and guidance where needed.

Your views are vital to shaping the support and services needed to enable the digital transformation of colleges. As well as providing feedback through the leadership survey, you can provide feedback through our annual strategic stakeholder updates in December or through your relationship manager at any time.

About the survey

Our annual survey of senior leaders in further education provides rich insight into the challenges and needs of the sector, informing the ongoing development of our services and support.

The survey ran from 1 February to 1 March 2024 and was sent to 1,832 strategic and operational lead contacts in 321 further education member organisations across technology, security, library/LRC, learning and teaching, research, finance, international, administration and estates and facilities roles. 383 responses were received from 258 further education members.

About the author

Headshot of Robin Ghurbhurun
Robin Ghurbhurun
UK managing director, further education and skills, nations, advice and training

I am the UK executive lead for Jisc’s FE and skills policy, stakeholder engagement, and services. I lead on Jisc’s strategy for supporting member FE and skills institutions with their digital transformation. This includes thought leadership, enhanced professional practice, data insights, business optimisation and elevating the student and staff digital experience.

In addition, I also provide executive leadership on our advisory and training services for further and higher education. I ensure Jisc has strategic engagement with Department for Education in England, Scottish Funding Council, Welsh Government and the Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland and other relevant agencies and digital suppliers. This enables collaboration to find the right solutions in areas such as edtech policy, digital infrastructure planning and investment.