Cutting costs without cutting quality

Patrick Truss finds out how universities can provide high-quality, yet economic IT infrastructure

The introduction of tuition fees has fundamentally changed the UK university sector, with students taking an increasingly consumerist approach when applying to higher education. One of the ways universities can differentiate themselves is through providing high-quality, modern IT infrastructure, an area that the Stone Group specialises in. “We generate around £18m of revenue a year in higher education. It’s a very important market for us,” says Simon Harbridge, the company’s CEO. 

The company provides a wide range of solutions across the whole IT product lifecycle, an approach that Harbridge says meets the needs of higher education institutions. “Universities tend to prefer a partner that they can work with over the longer term,” he continues. “There are a number of benefits to that. If you’re looking to get the best value out of your IT hardware, or software for that matter, then you’re really looking at total cost of ownership – it’s not just about the up front price. I think working with a partner who understands your IT requirements, and who works with you, can help you minimise the total cost of ownership.”

Total costs of ownership

This is, of course, a priority for many universities, driven in large part by changes in the way they are financed. There is now a much greater focus on understanding the full costs of IT throughout its entire lifecycle, rather than just the up front costs. “Universities also need to consider how reliable the IT is, the power requirements, the running costs and much more besides,” points out Harbridge. Many universities are now also more willing than previously to consider outsourcing for shared services, according to Richard Maccabee, Director at the University of London Computer Centre, a leading IT services provider. “We run the Moodle, the leading open source virtual learning environment, for Manchester Metropolitan, Exeter and Oxford Brookes, as well as many other institutions,” he outlines.

“They’re prepared to do that because we work with 150 colleges and have very significant economies of scale. We have put together a centre of excellence, a centre of expertise to support them – the architecture of Moodle is such that it allows institutions to add services on top of the core Moodle service. They can take their own approach to teaching and learning, using systems that complement Moodle.” 

This can help institutions save money while maintaining high-quality IT infrastructure at the same time. A large part of that is down to the economies of scale that ULCC offers, while it can also invest in the technical understanding and expertise required to run services like Moodle. “We can provide monitoring tools and a 24/7 support service. We can operate professional-level service level agreements on the availability of the system. So we save money there,” explains Maccabee. Then there’s the issue of the predictability of costs; most institutions today have a well-planned spending process within their budgetary cycle, and many are looking to control their operational expenditure and spread the costs of IT over a longer period of time.

“Increasingly we see things that are common in other sectors, like institutions being keen to see what the costs are going to be, to have guarantees of costs over a period of time,” continues Maccabee. “They’re putting value on the predictability of costs. Potentially a part of that is to see costs reduced over a period of time, to take advantage of improvements in technology and the underlying capability
of hardware.”     

The IT services that universities provide have also changed with more students owning their own laptops and mobile devices. Nevertheless universities still need computers, and there are savings to be made on the purchase of IT devices. “We run a scheme where staff can choose and buy particular devices from a list then pay for it via deductions through the payroll. The university saves on National Insurance while the staff will be buying a fully-insured device, which is supported by our payment solutions, so it’s fully funded. They’re probably obtaining it for up to 60% off the high street price,” says Harbridge. 

The Stone Group also offers schemes for students, giving them discounts on devices which will be supported by the university’s IT infrastructure. “We also offer Choose Your Own Device (CYOD) schemes where the university can suggest a list of devices that the students may wish to purchase. Again, we can provide the finance for that, so that they only pay a certain fixed amount a month,” continues Harbridge. “We can provide bundles with insurance, a laptop carry case, or accessories for the Apple equipment for example. Again, the student will be achieving better than the high street price.”     

The focus for many universities is now on developing and enabling systems that support a wider Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) strategy. Frank Steiner, Marketing Manager at ULCC, points to the example of one of ULCCs customers to illustrate the point. “Manchester Metropolitan University have just been through a big project, called ‘cloud formations for curriculum transformation’. They wanted a VLE – Moodle, which we host – as well as surrounding services which would allow students to access it anywhere at any time,” he outlines.

This kind of infrastructure can help attract students, who by and large prefer to work on their own devices. “I’m sure IT is now seen, pretty much across the board, as a value-adder and an important element in students’ decisions to come to an institution,” says Maccabee. “Many institutions have recognised that. They’ve done that in part by moving from having an IT Director to having a Chief Information Officer, which I think is a recognition of the importance of IT as a core part of the delivery agenda.”

IT recycling

This is very much an ongoing task, with new technological innovations that can improve performance continuing to emerge. Some university departments will require state-of-the-art machines to maintain their place at the forefront of research, but others may not need such sophisticated technology, which offers opportunities for cost savings. “I think universities need to consider very carefully how they manage their whole fleet of IT assets,” says Harbridge.

A university might purchase a relatively fast machine for the university library for example, but then they might find three years later that it’s not actually that fast by comparison with the latest technology. “They might want to move that machine to a secretary in a particular department who doesn’t perhaps require such a high level of performance. Then the university might get another year or two out of that computer,” points out Harbridge. “It’s important then that it’s still covered by warranty in the fourth and fifth year. Then at the end of the fifth year the university will want somebody who’ll come and collect that device and take it away and recycle it properly.” 

Students now have long experience of using IT as consumers before they come to university. This has led to increased demand for more consumer-type devices in educational environments, which universities are responding to by providing BYOD-type schemes. “Devices like smartphones and tablets are widely used in the consumer world today, so students come to university with greater IT expectations. Universities need to meet those expectations, and there are challenges around that in supporting lots of different types of devices,” says Harbridge. 

A wide range of devices and methods of delivering teaching are available to universities, and Harbridge is confident that, with the right support, universities can cut down on the cost of IT while still providing high-quality, reliable and effective infrastructure. “With the right back-end infrastructure, universities can still support a whole range of user client devices, from large, all-in-one type devices, to desktops in mathematics and engineering classes,” he says. “It’s important for universities to find the right partner, who can provide a high level of service around whatever is being supplied.”

The first step is for an IT partner to understand the higher education sector and how they should work together in partnership with the university. Both Stone Group and ULCC recognise the importance of effective IT to a university’s ability to improve academic results, and with long experience in the sector are well-placed to deal with the challenges it faces. “If IT works well and supports learning and teaching, then it always slips into the background and isn’t an issue. But if it starts to go wrong then it affects everything and people know. And people blame IT for their e-mail not being available,” says Steiner. 

“IT enables the university to manage the way students work and interact with them, either in or out of the classroom,” says Harbridge. “One of the latest issues the government is working on with FE colleges is whether all students have to attend all lectures. They’re trying to encourage more online studying and things like that through FE colleges. So there is quite a focus on how to deliver various curriculums using IT.”