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AI and Automation in UK universities: debunking the buzz

Our learnings from UCISA 2024

uni student smiling on laptop
Hannah Bath

Hannah Bath

Higher Education Account Manager & Public Sector Marketing Executive

On Wednesday 13 March 2024, the Softcat Higher Education team keenly returned to the UCISA Leadership Conference, reuniting with our valued Higher Education customers. This annual event serves as a pivotal gathering for tech leaders within UK Higher Education institutions, offering a platform to delve into the latest innovations in Ed-Tech, tackle industry challenges head-on, and foster invaluable networking opportunities among peers and partners.  

This year at UCISA24, AI and Automation took centre stage - sparking debate on whether these were just buzzwords similar to past trends in the sector like 'virtualisation' and 'digitalisation'. As these technologies rapidly penetrate the higher education sector, questions arise about their true benefits and ethical implications, alongside concerns about reshaping the educational landscape. Here's what we learned from the delegates at the conference: 

Benefits of AI and Automation in UK universities 

  1. Efficiency and resource optimisation: streamlining administrative tasks allows for more focus on personalised student support and academic innovation. 
  2. Facilitating research and innovation: empowering researchers with AI tools accelerates data analysis, driving breakthroughs in various fields. 
  3. Cost reduction and budget optimisation: implementing automation in administrative functions could significantly reduce operational costs, enabling more investment in academic programs, IT and estates transformations and faculty development. 
  4. Remaining competitive globally: embracing AI maintains competitiveness on a global scale, attracting top talent and forging research partnerships (which is a significant positive impact to the sector post-Brexit).  

Cautions to consider: 

  1. Ethical implications: navigating ethical considerations such as data privacy and algorithmic bias is crucial. 
  2. Dependency on technology: balancing technology use with preserving interpersonal connections and critical thinking skills is essential. 
  3. Security risks: robust cybersecurity measures are necessary to safeguard sensitive information; processes and governance will be key.  
  4. Impact on employment: addressing concerns about job displacement through reskilling and upskilling initiatives is vital. 

Moving forward 

As UK universities embrace these transformative technologies, it's essential to approach them with both enthusiasm and caution, ensuring they serve the ultimate goal of enhancing education and research excellence. 

Is your organisation ready to navigate the complexities of AI and Automation? Softcat can offer specialist support to guide you through this journey. Reach out to to explore how our experts can support your institution.