At Jisc’s recent annual conference, both Professor Eric Thomas (Vice Chancellor of Bristol University) and I stressed that higher education cannot afford to slow down in its adoption of information and communications technology (ICT). Quite the contrary: the challenging financial environment and the increased international competition require innovative approaches to ensure that the UK remains a leader in world class teaching, education and research.
As Eric pointed out, being innovative can help show prospective students that the university means business when it comes to staying at the top, thereby helping to drive revenue from course fees. It can also support widening participation by reaching out to students in non-traditional areas – as at the University of the Highlands and Islands, where technology is conquering geography and allowing students to tap into the network of over 80 different learning centres from their own homes and workplaces. There’s no doubt that smart technology use can enhance students’ experience of university, whether that be keeping in touch with a tutor out of hours or logging on to an online learning environment - like the University of Bristol’s online laboratory ChemLabs, which better prepares undergraduates for their real-life practical work.
Technology can drive income from business, too. I’m aware that the vast majority of the work that goes on between universities and their business and community partners is heavily dependent on virtual collaboration through email, telephone or web tools and resources. Last year a Jisc project at the University of Glamorgan developed a 'listening zone' for feedback, ideas and partner-making, and acted as a marketplace for business referrals and contacts. Building an online community takes time but can be a valuable way to add value to what’s happening every day between local entrepreneurs and academics.
Now that higher education is entering an unregulated market, we’re bound to see increased competition between universities. But shared services can achieve cost savings by providing economies of scale. The recent upgrade of JANET, the UK’s education and research network, will save £63.2 million over its five years of operation. We’ve also seen the success of the Bloomsbury Colleges group in London which was set up in 2004 to collaborate together in academic administrative matters to avoid unnecessary duplication of effort while maintaining the colleges’ independence.
In addition to sharing these strategic approaches, we need to get better at learning from one another about which technology works, and where. Risks taken by individual institutions need not be repeated. For instance, Jisc has investigated the possibilities for an academic cloud specifically for researchers – and decided that at the moment, the arguments are not persuasive. You can read the report from 2010. There are countless examples of good technology use available across the sector and it’s encouraging to see groups like the enterprise architecture practice group for strategists coming together on a regular basis to ask how we can discover from each other.
I sometimes feel that the word ‘technology’ sounds expensive. You can estimate how much your ICT equipment is costing your university and the environment using the Jisc carbon footprinting tool. But the simplest technology can have a really big impact. We’re all aware, for example, of the potential for energy saving light bulbs to help us cut our bills at home, and the same principle can be applied to green ICT on an institution-wide scale. Jisc funded a project at Cardiff University to make better use of storage solutions for files that aren’t being accessed every day. It’s simple technology but when put into full production at Cardiff, it is anticipated that this will save 10kW of energy (approx 51 tonnes of CO2) per year, which at current prices is around £10,000 per annum. A green agenda can also help you make better use of space on campus by strategically outsourcing ICT functions using cloud computing, resulting in lower cooling costs and new space that used to be taken up with servers.
Having said that, there’s no doubt that investing in new ICT facilities can be costly. As universities try to prioritise, what should they do if buying a new system becomes unavoidable? Jisc ProcureWeb is a shared service which enables institutions to save money through efficient procurement and was estimated to have saved the sector £1,350,000 in 2008/09. You can read Jisc’s advice on getting the best price for any new equipment you’re consider on the Jisc Infonet contract negotiation infokit I’d also encourage universities to ensure that they’re not paying more than they have to for their existing services. For example, there’s a searchable list of all the free and discounted licensed digital resources available through Jisc at the content website. In 2009/10 alone, Jisc Collections saved UK colleges and universities over £50m on subscription costs.
You can find out more about how Jisc can help you in the reducing costs area of our website – which focuses on how we can help support your institution with strategic thinking, background documents, practical advice and downloadable resources on all the topics I’ve mentioned in this post. By wisely investing in technology, I believe a university can save costs, generate revenue and share the burden of spending - but I also don’t want us to lose the innovative spark that keeps UK plc at the forefront of research globally. We must continue to take calculated risks with technology if we want to support our students and researchers with their bright ideas and ensure that our universities attract people who are themselves forward looking and innovative.
This blog post first appeared on the Guardian Higher Education Network on 18 April 2011. Visit the Guardian site