Impact of the economic recession on university library and IT services
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The main focus of this research was to assess the impact of the economic downturn on university library and IT services. We conducted 40 interviews with representatives of each of these services in 36 different institutions across the UK.
See the briefing paper for this reportWe included a wide selection of universities – old and new, campus and city, and small and large. While each institution is unique with respect to the way it reacts to student and staff needs, there are concerns and issues that cut across all of them when it comes to the potential impacts of the economic recession on services.
The situation today
Most institutions we spoke to are not yet feeling the ‘pinch’ of the recession on their services, which may be due in part to the fact that this research was conducted early in terms of the budgeting year. There is also a strong sense that both the library and IT departments occupy a protected place as central and essential services, and most report that the impact of the recession on budgets has currently been contained to small, easily managed cuts – for now. That being said, many institutions are anticipating deep cuts starting next year and are attempting to plan for reduced budgets now.
For most universities the 2009/2010 financial year is not of great concern. Even those libraries and IT departments that have been instructed to deliver 5% efficiency savings and believe they can meet the challenge of reducing costs without impacting services.
2010/2011 could see deep budget cuts, competition over fewer students, and a change in government 2010/2011, on the other hand, is anticipated to be harsher with deep budget cuts, competition over fewer students, and a change in government all increasing the pressure to deliver real savings over maintaining service delivery. Many universities are already adopting a more private sector/commercial approach to the business of the university as a whole and believe that ‘no institution has the right to exist anymore. We’ve got to prove our worth.’
Both libraries and IT departments have changed dramatically over the past five years. They have had to adapt to a larger body of students who are increasingly technologically adept, and who also look for increasingly personalised services from the institutions they attend. While the fundamental function of both libraries and IT departments has remained unchanged, the way in which services are delivered have evolved as the use of online resources has become more sophisticated.
This shift to a more ‘customer’ focused service delivery has meant changes to the way libraries and IT departments interact with one another and with students. For many universities, this means longer opening hours for libraries and 24 hour access to electronic resources and ICT facilities. Most participants in the research felt that this need for ever-more enhanced service delivery might make the next few years of recession even more difficult.
Looking to the future
Every university expressed a concern about currency fluctuations and none have any concrete plans to mitigate for these changes (either at a departmental or university-wide level) beyond keeping their budgets and spending under review. For the most part, larger universities are anticipating a greater impact on their international subscriptions and ICT acquisitions due to currency fluctuations than smaller universities who tend to limit their subscriptions to national publications.
In addition to the recessionary impact on budgets, many are concerned about demographic changes (fewer 18-19 year olds to commit to an undergraduate programme), the cap expected on student numbers, the cap on fees, and anxiety over a general election and change of government with a new approach to higher education.
Specific issues for libraries
Libraries have an acute sense of vulnerability. There is a growing concern that their services may be seen as an easy target for savings and efficiencies, while they struggle to meet an increasingly high level of service demands from students and academic staff.
Library stakeholders fear that the recession may affect libraries in the following ways:
- Small cuts across the range of services, or the loss of entire services perceived to be of less value to users, which librarians perceive will lead to a decline of overall service quality
- Having to achieve savings by cutting opening hours, in a world where users are only going to demand more access to resources, and increased access to library space
- Hard-copy books and journals will be more difficult to get hold of, which will be exacerbated by budget cuts which weaken libraries’ purchasing power; this may negatively impact user experience
- Difficulties may result from being locked into existing publisher deals originally negotiated under a standard purchasing model whose value for money has decreased in light of currency fluctuations
- Pressure to increase self-service – seen as a positive in terms of efficiency savings after an initial investment
- Difficulties retaining and recruiting staff with the necessary skills to reflect the changing library service offerings and evolving needs of its users, in the face of potential recruitment freezes or cuts to training budgets
- Concern about future tensions between the current union-negotiated pay and benefits packages for staff, and the economic environment that may eventually require staff cuts.
Specific issues for IT departments
IT departments, on the other hand, feel more secure with respect to potential cuts and believe that any institutional move towards efficiencies is simply ‘business as usual’ and offers a good opportunity to review current spending habits and streamline services.
They are, however, anticipating pressure with respect to:
- Increased scrutiny on existing budgets/reporting in an environment of increasing service demands
- Staff redundancies more likely than in library environment, given difficulty in driving down non-staff costs
- How to manage staff. If cuts are necessary, but redundancies are difficult to achieve, they feel they may need help managing and communicating recruitment freezes or staff restructuring
- More renegotiating/reviewing of existing contracts due primarily to fluctuations in currency rates causing difficulties in purchasing new hardware
- Increased competition when seeking funding from internal revenue streams; there may be a need to bid on a time-consuming, case-by-case basis
Responding to the pressures
Response to these pressures varies slightly depending on the size of the institution. Most have plans to renegotiate existing journal subscriptions and software licences (both major expenses) as one way of reducing their costs in coming years. Most feel they would be in a better position to do this as a part of a larger consortium of universities and would welcome a national consortium of universities in order to pressure publishers and benefit every institution equally.
With that in mind, where budgets are expected to be cut (although this is not a universal expectation), libraries are looking to cut journal subscriptions and book purchases rather than staff. The same is true of IT departments, which are looking at lengthening their hardware and software replacement/maintenance cycle in an attempt to mitigate the impact of the recession, as well as renegotiating contracts and leasing agreements with suppliers.