The Great University Challenge

Published in ComputerWorld UK

Technology to the rescue

Higher tuition fees have resulted in lower student intake. This has forced universities to look for greater cost efficiencies and to find improved ways to attract students, academics and research funding. Technology has a major role to play in this process.

Over the past few years the Higher Education landscape in the UK has seen significant change. Universities face unprecedented challenges, especially since the shift in financial structure and fee increases introduced in 2012 resulted in an overall reduction in student applications. One of the consequences of this is, that universities (even those regarded to be amongst the top educational facilities globally), have to face an increasingly more competitive marketplace with growing dependency upon international students.

Gaining competitive edge
How can these institutions differentiate themselves and achieve a competitive edge both domestically and internationally? Technology is at the heart of the solution: by creating a virtuous circle whereby a university’s reputation for high quality IT support (for research and teaching) attracts first class academics, who in turn attract the best students.

This creates an appealing environment and brings in ever more top talent. Indeed, gaining a reputation for the efficiency of their IT and excellence of service delivery has itself become a differentiator that astute educational institutions are marketing.

Adding to this ‘university challenge’ is also a change in requirements. In the past many universities have enjoyed a “carte blanche” to providing ‘good IT’, without necessarily concerning themselves with the efficiency and effectiveness of their IT service delivery. In today’s economic climate they must not only provide excellent resources, whilst ensuring ‘value for money’, thus demonstrating a far more stringent cost and operational efficiency.

Benchmarking the competition
Changes in data sharing legislation and more competition have driven the academic institutions to become more guarded regarding the sharing of information. However, in order to improve efficiency and competitiveness, institutions must have a baseline (where are you are starting from?), and in terms of the quality of IT service delivery, this can only accurately be measured in comparison with other similar organisations on an ‘apples to apples’ basis. For universities looking to attract international acclaim, it is imperative to know how they stack up against other top global educational institutions. Beyond that, in order to achieve true best practice, they should also rate themselves against the wider market. Only such cross-industry comparisons (e.g. between a multi-site, red-brick UK university and a manufacturing or financial organisation of the same scale and complexity), of cost and performance within specific services such as Email; Service Desk or Storage provision will tell if those academic IT services are truly on top of the league table.

The rising tide of data
There is a universal challenge facing organisations. Everyone everywhere is accumulating information on an unprecedented scale – and nowhere is this more evident than in an academic environment, where an exchange of knowledge is the principle currency. On top of all the mounting research data there are thousands of digitally imaged student and alumni records to manage. The challenges lie in the ability to accommodate this exponential increasing volume of data in a way that is not only safe and secure, but also provides speedy, accurate delivery which can be managed both in terms of cost and efficiency.

Beyond the data explosion, there are also potential hurdles in delivering an optimum desktop and network support (e.g. office applications and Email), and a variety of hardware devices. In Higher Education, the latter include a colourful selection of staff PCs, point-of-study terminals in lecture rooms, seminars, libraries, halls or residence, etc., high-end science and research equipment and a mushrooming number of mobile devices. With a large number of visiting academics and devices students bring to the campus, the presence of BYOD (bring your own device) is constantly increasing. This raises a number of questions regarding security and connectivity in academia and how this compares to the commercial world.

Cost Efficiency V’s. Service Quality
Average estimates indicate that 50% of university students are online at any given time which inevitably involves a high volume of wired and/or wireless traffic. Supporting this usage in a way that balances high-availability with maximum cost efficiency needs to be addressed. Following popular solutions will not always bring most efficient results (e.g. Opting for a supplier’s premium service to guarantee high availability and response times – rather than gaining a reputation for providing an inadequate technology service).

Across the infrastructure area, IT support can involve prohibitive costs with no guarantee of commensurate service delivery. This need not be the case, particularly with new technologies such as “Cloud computing” which is radically rewriting the rules of outsourcing or hosting. However, knowing:

A) How and where to improve services,

B) When and in what way to introduce new technology and,

C) How much will it cost, may require some professional assistance.

Embracing new technology
Looking specifically at the cost of providing data services one example would be student records, which involves information such as demographics, exam results, course scheduling, classroom and accommodation locations. Some universities have developed their own applications to manage student records while others have bought software “off-the-shelf”, which often needs tailoring. Some universities achieve an indifferent result while others with less staff may achieve an excellent support record. Comparing such varying environments can be difficult. If costs are high but service delivery poor, who is to blame, is it the application or an inadequate skill-set or staffing level within the support staff? Or is it something else within the infrastructure that is at fault?

It’s also worth remembering that supporting a legacy system may involve complex interfaces to other systems and/or involve a high level of on-going maintenance. As mentioned earlier, the only way to accurately and objectively address all of these questions and ensure the organisation is getting the best service at an appropriate price, is to make comparisons with one’s peer organisations – both within and without the higher education environment and if outsourcing, to compare service levels against fair market value.

As data volumes increases, infrastructure and other overheads are expanding exponentially. One increasingly popular solution is to move some services to a cloud based solution. These are often hosted by large global providers such as Google, Apple and Microsoft and charged on a pay-as-you-use basis. The economies of scale of these cloud providers ensures a good measure of high resilience, and because costs are commodity-based (i.e. not customised) they can be extremely competitive. Data security is often an issue and for those institutions who need higher levels of security for their student records, a private cloud solution (who act more like a traditional service provider yet offer varying degrees of commodity-based pricing models) may be a viable option.

With emerging nations growing in stature and disposable income, academic centres of excellence in the UK have an unprecedented opportunity to attract new business from home and abroad, providing of course, their technology is able to keep up with the increasingly sophisticated expectations from both students and academia.

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