Understanding Higher Education for a University IT Job Interview

A reaction of surprise is often received from people when they realise you work at a university, rather than a student studying there. Working at a university is an inspiring and rewarding opportunity to be able to help thousands of students follow their dreams, study, research, and grow.

After sixteen years in five universities, Higher Education is second nature to me. I really enjoy working in IT, and like most jobs, it’s the people that you work with and the people you support that make the job enjoyable. Higher Education provides an environment that focuses on sharing and learning within a community of possibly tens of thousands of people.

University jobs usually include experience of Higher Education in their person specifications, which can discourage talented new blood from applying for roles. I believe that this experience, whilst ensuring that the candidate will enjoy working in the environment, is a boundary that effective on-boarding and mentoring can easily resolve.

The first step is finding out where universities advertise their vacancies. If you’re accustomed to searching the various jobs websites, you’re likely to miss out. Universities don’t usually advertise their vacancies on these websites, preferring to use Jobs.ac.uk instead. It’s possible to create daily job alerts for your desired areas of IT. If you’re interested in a specific university, don’t forget to sign up for their own job alerts as well.

Open days are an excellent way to visit the campus and ask lots of questions, and you’ll also get a feel for university campus life. When signing up to the open day, choose a related subject, for example, an undergraduate IT course. Pose as a potential student, go to the course and university talks, and find out about the IT department. People of all ages study at universities, so don’t worry if it may seem a little strange.

In my experience, the interview panel has been very impressed with open day attendance and it allows you to honestly say that you have experienced the campus, find it an exciting place to work, and that you’ll fit in nicely. It allows a direction of discussion that is personal to the interview panel, mention a helpful IT persons name, and some things about the IT department and/or university that impressed you.

As with any interview, it’s important to research your future employer, their business, and their services. Try to familiarise yourself with the systems and infrastructure a University runs, whether this is by searching their public IT support documentation, service status pages, or asking the university questions as if you’re a potential student.

The university campus starts getting busy around September as students start arriving for the new academic year. It’s a time of year that makes you proud to be working in academia, with thousands of people in one place for the first time, exploring the place that you call home, from all corners of the UK and the world.

University departmental budgets are usually released quite close to the start of term, meaning that there is often a rush to prepare IT systems, upgrade desktops, and anything else that needs to be ready before teaching begins. The first few weeks of teaching can be extremely busy for the IT department, with password resets, advice on accessing services, and supporting the high load on IT systems as everyone accesses them all at the same time.

If you’re looking for a technical support role in IT, most Universities have a standard Microsoft based infrastructure, including Active Directory, Group Policy, System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM), and Active Directory Federation Services (ADFS). Email and collaboration services may be provided by Exchange, Office 365 for Education or Google G Suite for Education.

Authentication services are important within universities. Institutional login methods can be based on LDAP, ADFS, web authentication gateways, and federated authentication. University libraries are usually members of the UK Federation for Shibboleth or Open Athens based authentication (SAML 2). This allows staff and students to seamlessly authenticate to 3rd party external services using their normal institutional login whilst also maintaining their privacy and anonymity.

Universities are made up of hundreds of offices and learning & teaching spaces, which depending on the university may be distributed over 50+ buildings in one or more campuses, sometimes nestled within a busy city centre. This can make for complex network infrastructures, diverse fibre routes, and redundant 10Gbit/s internet connections provided by the Jisc service Janet.

The wireless usually found within universities is called Eduroam. Staff and students can use their institutional login to access the wireless in not only their own university, but also whilst at other universities. Authentication credentials are verified with the home university using federated Radius services. Eduroam is a great benefit to staff and students who travel around the country for both business and pleasure, providing a fast, safe, and secure internet connection.

Universities run a large number of servers, easily exceeding 500+ servers, both physical and virtual running on platforms like VMware, Microsoft Hyper-V, or Xen Server.  The operating systems running in universities may include various versions of Windows Server, Linux, hardware and software based appliances, and potentially NetWare, Unix, and Apple Mac, etc.

A huge amount of data is created within universities, especially in research departments. It’s not unusual for storage array sizes to be quoted in hundreds of terabytes or even in petabytes. Several universities are currently migrating servers and storage to the cloud, commonly Microsoft Azure.

Central to the student learning and teaching experience is the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), which provides the students’ course content, quizzes, discussion forums, and coursework submission, grades, etc. Commonly used VLEs include Moodle, Blackboard, and Canvas. Student submissions are often passed through the Turnitin plagiarism service before marking begins.

In addition to the VLE, there are many other learning and teaching services at universities, including content authoring tools, media streaming, e-portfolios, lecture capture, reading lists, learning analytics, online classrooms, and video conferencing.

This is just a selection of the services that a university IT department supports, alongside the traditional systems run by all large businesses. Hopefully, this provides a good starting point should you wish to research more about IT in universities.

Salaries are paid based on a single pay spine and the salary at each spine point is the same in all universities. Job roles fall within a certain grade of 1-9+ (example) and until you reach the final spine point within your grade, you should increment to the next spine point annually. As universities can overlay their grade structure at any points within the single pay spine, salaries for the same grade can greatly differ between universities.

The National Union for Students (NUS) provides the NUS Extra student discount card which is available to students of affiliated university Students’ Unions. Purchasing a discount card supports your university Students’ Union and is also available to staff. It’s a great benefit that can help you save money.

If you’re looking for an interesting and rewarding IT role, where there is always something to learn and offers the challenge of supporting a huge infrastructure, a university IT department may be the perfect workplace for you.    

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