Quality vs cost

Sara Edlington looks at how universities can deliver high-quality ICT without breaking the bank

Increasing demand from students for up-to-date technology means added pressure to provide reliable ICT in a cost-effective way. Frank Steiner, marketing manager at the University of London Computer Centre (ULCC), an IT services provider to the higher education sector, comments: “The so-called consumerisation of IT is one of the biggest drivers for this trend as is the increase in student fees. The former is happening across sectors and not just limited to the (higher) education sector. We are all used to accessing data anytime, anywhere and on any device; why should coming to university be any different?”

Steiner goes on to comment: “Add to that the cost of obtaining a degree, which I believe has fundamentality changed the student-university relationship, and universities will be, and already are, faced with uncompromising demands on ICT provision and availability.” 

Consider your options

There‘s a lot to consider, from the systems that drive ICT (such as servers and networks), PCs and tablets, ‘bring-your-own-device’ schemes and issues such as security and licensing. All this combined with a flexible approach to keep everything up-to-date and operational. To help cope with these demands universities are turning to outside suppliers to help deliver what’s needed in a cost-effective way. Suppliers are providing servers, networks, data recovery, PCs and tablets and also ICT support services for students and staff.

Steiner has seen a varied approach in what services their customers choose to use. “Choices ranging from simple co-location, ‘intelligent hands’ onto a fully managed service – there is no one-size-fits-all, as it depends on the maturity and complexity of each organisation.”

Jamie Burke, sales director at Softcat, an IT infrastructure provider to the higher education sector, says: “By their very nature, most universities already have significant technical and intellectual ‘horsepower’ internally and quite often they are looking for supplementary support services or ‘out-tasking’ as opposed to more traditional ‘outsourcing’.”

He goes on to say that quite often, universities require additional support and resources on a short-term, flexible basis to supplement and help up-skill in-house resource. “This effectively acts as an extension of their own in-house IT department to deliver new solutions quickly and in a controlled, repeatable manner.”

A managed service

Using managed services is one solution. A managed service is where a supplier takes over the day-to-day management of an ICT network. However, the way a university’s ICT is structured creates challenges for suppliers. Daley Robinson, marketing director at Stone Group, an IT solutions provider to the higher education sector, explains: “Universities are the non-conformists of the public sector when it comes to managed services – their structure makes the implementation of a university-wide ICT solution of any kind a big challenge. The technology needs of the Faculty of Physics are totally different to those of the History of Art Department. Therefore, there are pockets of managed services being implemented by a department or business unit, but few that are university wide.”

The University of York is one campus using a managed service. Adrian Young, head of desktop and printing services explains: “We use managed services on a couple of levels, because it makes sense to us in terms of channelling staff time away from activity that is best completed by a faster, specifically expert provider.”

The University of York chose to work with Stone Group. They supply the University with PCs for student and staff use in classrooms, and also build and service the PCs as needed.

“We have around 1,000 PCs available for student use in our IT classrooms, and, to give an example, last year to install a new classroom of 122 devices took Stone around three days.” Young continues: “This would’ve taken 2–3 members of my team considerably longer. I think annually, using a service like this from Stone gives my team back around 30% of their time, which, of course, is better used meeting the technology needs of our customers – the students and staff at the University. “

Outside help

This is another reason that universities are turning to suppliers for their ICT. A university can’t afford for their technology, be that a server or a PC, to be unusable for long. By outsourcing this, it enables them to offer staff and students reliable ICT and networks and also frees up the time of ICT staff.

Another important aspect of offering high-quality ICT to students is a wireless network. The University of York offers this facility, and as Young explains, it’s a big issue for universities. “One thing that has really developed, of course, is the perception that Wi-Fi is a basic need, and certainly, we make sure that the vast majority of our 15,000 students can get online wherever they are in the campus.”

Young goes on to say: “We don’t provide encryption for students, but we do for staff. I think, with ‘bring your own device’ as a functional necessity at most universities, security is an area we are always trying to do our best with. It’s balancing availability and convenience with keeping staff, students and the University safe.”

Universities need to think carefully about how they manage the services they outsource, as Steiner explains: “It’s also worth considering that outsourcing isn’t without its pitfalls and requires the university IT department to rethink its role, for example account and relationship management are becoming increasingly important when managing third-party suppliers.”

The increasing popularity of bring your own device (BYOD)’ and ‘choose your own device (CYOD)’ brings with it the issue of software licensing. Burke says: “Another important consideration that has recently been highlighted as a direct result of BYOD/CYOD adoption is compliant software licensing. Universities have always had a real challenge in relation to effective Software Asset Management (SAM) due to the dynamic size and shape of their user base.”

He goes on to say: “Now, with the increase in flexible mobile device usage and newer technologies such as software-as-a-service (SAAS)/cloud there is a real danger of a ‘Wild West’ situation developing, unless appropriate consideration and investment is made in SAM. “Software-as-a-service is where the software is hosted by a provider and then accessed by end users over a network. 

Green ICT

Another cost-saving measure is to recycle ICT that has been replaced, and keep it in use, making it more cost-effective in the long term. “This strategy has huge potential to save a university money as a whole institution”, says Robinson. “Looking back to my point on the differing needs of each faculty, devices and hardware that have served their purpose in the Engineering and Design faculty can be re-purposed for use in a department with a smaller power or memory requirement.”

This strategy must be given some thought, as Robinson explains: “However, this isn’t just a case of ‘gifting’ the devices over, they will need professional refurbishment by an ICT recycling provider. Any data on the device will need to be securely disposed of – failure to do so may be a contravention of the Data Protection Act and potentially a serious issue.” 

Robinson goes onto add that: “Nevertheless, the process is quick and involves very little extra work for any university staff member with the right provider, and can prove an excellent cost-saving addition to HE ICT strategy. We work with several universities on projects like this.”

The University of York completely recycles its old devices, as Young explains: “We recycle our IT estate as a matter of course. We comply with all the EU regulations on data protection, and I see this as a necessity and treat it as a process.” He goes on to add: “I’ve never had any difficulty finding a provider, but I have found that it’s important to ask the right questions when choosing one, particularly about the end destination of hardware.”

Combining outsourcing, or out-tasking, certain aspects of ICT with recycling existing hardware can help universities cope with the demands they face. The fact is, as Burke says: “Increased competition and significant commercial considerations mean it is imperative that universities attract the right quantity and quality of staff/students.”

Unlike ever before, prospective students are placing greater importance upon the ICT facilities a university can provide, and the flexibility afforded to initiatives such as BYOD and CYOD.