FE hamstrung by long-term under-investment in digital infrastructure, finds report

Jisc collected data from more than 100 college infrastructure reviews, and found that a lack of skilled IT staff, poor connectivity and old equipment were commonplace

In a finding unlikely to surprise many in the sector, a major new study published today (October 26) by Jisc finds that long-term underinvestment in IT and digital infrastructure is having a deleterious effect on further education (FE).

Using data collected from over 100 college infrastructure reviews between 2016 and 2020, the education technology not-for-profit found that a lack of skilled staff, inadequate connectivity and old – even obsolete – equipment were severely impairing chances of students receiving a genuinely 21st century education.

On average, says the report, each member of IT support staff is expected to administer technical first aid to fully 814 system users.

“The government’s announcement on 19 August that it had released £200m for 180 colleges to spend on infrastructure is not enough to solve the underlying digital challenges caused by years of under-investment” – Robin Ghurbhurun, Jisc

Despite IT teams comprising “a large number of highly talented and dedicated IT professionals […] who are most certainly a credit to the sector”, the report concludes that a skills shortage is being exacerbated further by overstretched IT teams missing out on up-to-date technical training.

Another key area of concern – one of the “most serious single points of failure” in a world where so many FE software operations are now cloud-based – is poor internet connectivity.

Finally, there is the issue of outdated systems. In the month it was revealed that nearly 16,000 coronavirus cases were missed because Public Health England was relying on an Excel file format dating back to 1987, it’s unlikely to come as a shock that another area reliant on government money is riven with outmoded tech.

Further education, finds Jisc, is saddled with “a large number of out-of-date core infrastructure systems continuing in use beyond their manufacturer or vendor end-of-support dates”.

For Robin Ghurbhurun, Jisc’s managing director of further education and skills, much of the problem comes down to funding.

“The government’s announcement on 19 August that it had released £200m for 180 colleges to spend on physical and digital infrastructure is welcome,” he says “but  it is not enough to solve the underlying digital challenges caused by years of under-investment.”

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Thankfully, finds the report, there are at least a few reasons to be cheerful.

“Where organisations have a chief technology officer, chief information officer or similar senior role,” it states, “they are able to embed technology and improved organisation-wide decision-making to make a positive difference to service delivery.”

“With leadership, resource and careful planning,” added Ghurbhurun, “colleges have shown they can position themselves at the leading edge and deliver future-proofed education and skills.”

Click here to read Jisc’s infrastructure review in full.

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