Cutting the cost of the CUTTING EDGE

Alice Savage talks to industry leaders helping universities keep costs low on and off campus

Without compromising quality is a challenge faced by many universities. In this digital age it is important for universities to offer access to the cutting edge of technology but this can lead to financial implications later down the line. The demand for tech is driven by a number of different factors. Universities are now embracing an intake of digital natives, students who have experienced the integration of modern technology throughout the entirety of their lives. It is therefore crucial that universities are seen to be seizing the trend especially now that increased fees have led to a more competitive higher education market.  By integrating the right technology a university can positively impact the whole student experience from prospective to post-graduate level. Stewart Price, Customer Success Associate at Guidebook, says: “The majority of new students starting university in 2016 will have been born after 1995, so they absolutely do not expect, or want to be handed, stacks of paper.”

Getting it right

Finding the right technology for your university can seem like a daunting task. Having a clear strategy can save you time and money. Having a broad vision of your requirements means asking questions. Getting insights from students and staff and consulting potential suppliers will mean that you get the right product for you. Steve Eggleton, Sales Director at Cablecom, who provide broadband to over 250,000 student bedrooms said: “Knowing that students expect unrestricted access to    internet the minute they arrive on campus presents many unique challenges. We’re able to offer a pre-registration so that all the credentials are in place already when students arrive. This helps with orientation and helps students feel at home.” This key understanding of what students need ensures that extra resources don’t need to be assigned later down the line.

Understanding the full scope of the product is important to getting the most out of software. Andrew Robinson, Director of Higher Education at Cengage Learning EMEA, stresses that all stakeholders need to be behind the product for it to be successful: “Ensure that buy-in is achieved across all stakeholders, in particular faculty staff and the library and information staff, as they are stakeholders in the LMS [Learning Management System].” Guidebook’s Stewart Price also makes the same point: “If those at the very top don’t understand the reasons why the app is useful and worthwhile, it’s going to be much harder to communicate that effectively to everyone else.” By organising proper training from your supplier you can ensure a smoother implementation and mean that everyone will experience the very best from the product and money will be well spent. 

Take advantage of BYOD

The latest figures from Ofcom show that smartphone ubiquity among 16–24-year-olds has almost reached 100%. In addition to this, many students also own other devices such as tablets and laptops. Universities can take advantage of this with schemes such as bring your own device (BYOD) by concentrating their resources on software that can run on any platform instead of investing in expensive hardware that can quickly become obsolete. 

Ash Merchant, Education Director at Fujitsu, writes: “Adapting advanced digital technologies into the learning space will actually drive down technology costs. For example, the concept of BYOD is perfectly suited for tertiary education – whereby universities don’t need to provide computers, while students get to work on their preferred device.”  

This approach not only benefits the university but increases the product’s attractiveness and usefulness to its end user.

In the past universities have been restricted from rolling out schemes such as BYOD or CYOD (choose your own device) because of the difficulty/expense of obtaining the correct licensing. With the rise of custom-made multi-platform apps such as Guidebook, or the increasingly popular Software as a Service (SaaS) model (where core functions such as HR and payroll are hosted and managed outside of the institution’s environment) this is becoming less of a problem. Keith Hawkes, Industry Manager for Education at TechnologyOne says the SaaS model can negate the upfront and ongoing hardware and licensing costs. “By adopting a single, totally integrated SaaS solution, universities are able to streamline business process delivery, minimise the cost associated with complex integration across disparate systems, negate cost of hardware provision and maintenance, and reduce the overall cost of license fees through a ‘pay as you go’ model.”

The cost of hardware has drastically decreased over the past few years and we’ve seen a rise in popularity of low-cost hardware products such as Rasperry Pi, Arduino, and Lego Mindstorm. Coorus Mohtadi, Senior Academic Technical Specialist at MathWorks, describes how some service providers, like MathWorks, are able to use this new low-cost hardware to reduce the end cost to their customers; “Engineers are able to replicate the functionality of projects they’re trying to create at a fraction of the cost. In addition, low-cost hardware has the potential to speed up early stages of product development through hardware support packages, such as those from MathWorks, which help to implement code quickly onto the devices and reduce time spent debugging code.” 

Knowing that students expect unrestricted access to internet the minute they arrive on campus presents many unique challenges 

Keeping TCO down

Working with the right suppliers can help you keep your total cost of ownership down. In addition to the base cost of the technology you want to implement there can be a lot of extra costs along the way. Suppliers can help you mitigate those extra costs in a variety of different ways and this is something that can be discussed when deciding which supplier is right for you. Striving to keeps ongoing costs to a minimum is Cablecom who, aside from delivering their core product of high-speed internet to student accommodation, also offer round-the-clock technical support, run live social media streams for information, and have a wealth of trouble-shooting and how-to videos online that students can access should they experience problems. This lessens the load placed on a university’s own ICT department. 

Other ways service providers can help lower costs is by offering a completely managed service. This can include implementing the software, offering training and support and even maintaining hardware. TechnologyOne offer a ‘customer community’ – which is an online collaborative space for customers and staff to work together to make sure projects run smoothly. Keith Hawkes explains: “Universities learn a great deal by hearing about their peers’ journeys, and we benefit from suggestions for product enhancements and changes.” 

This collaboration can mean that any issues are solved quickly and avoided in the future – saving in-house ICT departments a lot of time and resources. 

Second-hand hardware

It is a fact of the modern world that hardware technology can quickly become obsolete. As software and peripherals demand more and more memory and computing resources, you may find that your department often needs to upgrade. Many universities have set up schemes that allow departments to offer up their unwanted hardware to different departments, who maybe don’t need as much power. This keeps the hardware in use and out of landfill.

This naturally carries its own pitfalls. 

It is extremely important that second-hand hardware is properly refurbished by an ICT professional and all of the data completely removed to avoid data leaks or contravening data protection. However, once a scheme has been properly organised many universities find that they are able to save money in the long run by not doubling up on expensive hardware while at the same time doing their bit for the environment.

The University of Oxford has taken this idea one step further and has introduced a scheme where old equipment that cannot be reassigned within the university can be donated to local schools or charities instead providing that the person making the donation follows strict safety and data protection guidelines. Not only does this extend the lifetime of the hardware but is actually a force for good.

Saving money on technology without compromising quality will naturally involve a great deal of planning. There is no magic formula because every university, every department has a different set of needs and requirements. Thankfully, the cost of cutting-edge technology can be mitigated by working together with the right service providers and by leveraging new digital solutions. Ash Merchant at Fujitsu sums this up brilliantly: “Technology is continuing to change the world. In higher education in particular, new technologies can be applied to great advantage by campus communities seeking to offer better services for students and learners in more efficient ways. It is important for universities not to fear the costs of these new opportunities. In actuality, through effective pre-planning and working with partners to find the ideal solutions suited to their needs, Universities can, in fact, use new, digital solutions to reduce the costs of technology.”