Forging digital transformation in HE

Budgetary restrictions and ageing infrastructure are hampering the digital transformation of UK universities, finds a survey from Cogeco Peer 1

By Susan Bowen, VP and General Manager EMEA, Cogeco Peer 1

Now that the post-Brexit shock waves have settled, UK universities and higher education institutes are taking stock of the consequences of the withdrawal from the European Union. There are lots of issues to consider, ranging from future EU research funds, to concerns about EU research programmes, Erasmus+ and the free movement of staff and students.

However, arguably of even more fundamental importance is digital transformation. To maintain a leading global position, post-Brexit, the UK’s universities and higher education institutions must remain at the forefront of innovation. Digital transformation is central to this.

Digital transformation provides teachers with 21st century digital tools, which in turn enable a better quality of teaching with the student/teacher relationship characterised by immersive, interactive and personalised experiences. It equips students with the skills they need to survive and thrive and of course helps retain today’s digital native students who expect tech-driven learning as a matter of course.

Mounting pressures and shrinking resources

A recent survey, sponsored by Cogeco Peer 1, entitled ‘IT Infrastructure Must Be Secure, Affordable and Agile to Underpin Digital Transformation in UK Universities’, discovered that higher education IT departments are faced with mounting pressures and shrinking resources which in turn is holding back digital transformation.

Largely, these roadblocks are budgetary limitations and not having the right infrastructure in place. For instance, of the 40 universities we surveyed, 50% pointed to aging legacy infrastructure and networks, 48% cited limited budgets, and 43% mentioned security and data requirements as serious factors impeding digital transformation.

Despite this, digital transformation is expected to underpin pressing business priorities for higher education. For instance, modernising campus facilities, enhancing campus operational efficiency and reducing operational costs were all flagged up by survey respondents as priorities.

Of the 40 universities we surveyed, 50% pointed to aging legacy infrastructure and networks, 48% cited limited budgets, and 43% mentioned security and data requirements as serious factors impeding digital transformation.

Burnishing reputations

Of course, this makes sense because the more efficient and student-centric that a campus is, the more supportive of students they become. It helps students focus on preparing for an increasingly demanding and rapidly changing labour market, equipped with the skills they need to succeed, which in turn also burnishes the reputation of a higher education institute.

With the current lack of skilled practitioners within the STEM industries illustrating the importance of developing the right skills for the future job market, it is essential for organisations to ensure they are utilising all available resources to combat gender imbalances within the work place. There are initiatives out there to support this movement, such as the Tech Talent Charter, which should be adopted by all organisations as a move towards greater diversity in the tech workforce of the UK.

IT infrastructure services, such as cloud computing and hosting, can help successfully address the issues that survey respondents raised.

45% of respondents to the survey said improved infrastructure will help enhance system security, 30% said it will make IT expenditure more predictable, 43% said it will facilitate upgrades, and 20% said it will increase agility.

Significant improvements

These aren’t theoretical outcomes; survey respondents said they have already experienced significant improvements in each of these areas when infrastructure has been improved. 45% said system security has already been improved, 35% that IT expenditure is more predictable, 35% it has increased agility, and 43% that is has helped with system upgrades.

Despite the budgetary and infrastructure limitations currently holding back some organisations, digital transformation can still be driven forward by mapping out what the barriers are and prioritising actions according to these needs. Central to this is working closely with IT partners to enhance security and improve the agility and cost effectiveness of existing IT infrastructure.

UK universities also clearly understand the benefits of the cloud. The survey revealed that the public cloud is used for collaborative tools by 89% of respondents, high performance computing by 35% and internet of things by 48%. Interestingly but not too surprisingly given the security issues, 43% of respondents use an in-house private cloud for internet of things.

Despite the budgetary and infrastructure limitations currently holding back some organisations, digital transformation can still be driven forward by mapping out what the barriers are and prioritising actions according to these needs.

Importance of hybrid environments

However, within the context of digital transformation, it’s important to note that the public cloud, one-size-fits-all recipe is not enough. Increased agility, scalability and security are foundational stones for digital transformation but a public cloud alone simply can’t provide the required levels.

The solution is a hybrid cloud consisting of public, in-house private and hosted private. For instance, a hosted private cloud provides better performance and controls for data, users and information assets as well as meeting security and compliance requirements. At the same time the benefits of public clouds can still be leveraged.  This hybrid environment underpins digital transformation and it’s clear that many UK universities are actually moving along this road.

Network infrastructure services support secure hybrid computing environments and when we asked survey respondents whether they are currently using these services the majority responded positively. 45% said they are currently using network management/support services, 40% are using network integration services and 50% are using network consulting services.

Interestingly 45% said they are not using network integration services at the moment but plan to do so in the coming two years. 18% said the same of network management/support services and 10% said the same for network consulting services.

A way forward

However, it’s important to note that in the latter category 30% said they are currently using network consulting services and plan to increase this usage in the next two years. When it came to using either network management/support, network integration or network consulting services with a plan to decrease usage in the coming two years only 3% said this was the case. And this was for network consulting services.

It’s clear that universities understand the value of infrastructure in driving digital transformation but many are being held back by aging infrastructure and budgetary restrictions.

Despite this there is a way forward; designing a network infrastructure roadmap and working closely with IT service providers who can offer innovative capabilities, such as software-defined networking, and networking expertise. This will help universities ‘operationalise’ their roadmaps and provide the hybrid infrastructure foundation for sweeping digital transformation.

These are pressingly important issues given that digital transformation is central to the continued success of UK universities and higher education institutes in the post-Brexit world.