UK Web Focus

Innovation and best practices for the Web

“Cuts will bring us to our knees”

Posted by Brian Kelly on 12 January 2010

May 1997 was an exciting time for many – the Labour party back in power after many years in opposition – and one of the key mantras back then was “Education, education, education”. And despite the many failings of the New Labour experiment we did see significant investments in education with even the Daily Telegraph acknowledging that “Education spending increased from £36 billion in 1996/97 to £56.9 billion in 2006” and giving the (qualified) conclusion of “Good“.

And during my time at UKOLN (which began shortly before the Labour party came to power) I have noticed how the public sector investment in JISC has been the envy of many of those working in higher education in other counties, such as the US, Canada, Australia and mainland Europe.

But yesterday a feature article in The Guardian had the headline “Universities tell Gordon Brown: cuts will bring us to our knees“:

Top universities accuse Gordon Brown of jeopardising 800 years of higher education, warning that they could quickly be “brought to their knees” by the government’s spending cuts of up to £2.5bn, thereby damaging Britain’s ability to recover from recession.

Back in August 2008 I wrote my first post which warned that economic difficulties were likely to have a significant impact on the higher education sector: “In his talk [John Selby, HEFCE] praised the work of the JISC and the JISC Services, but went on to warn of troubled financial times ahead for the educational sector. The glory days of the past 10 years are over, he predicted.“Subsequent posts on “Who Is Suffering In The Economic Downturn?“, “Britain Faces Worst Year Since 1930s” and “Is It Really A Good Time To Be Asking For More IT Money?” touched on the implications of the recession on use of IT across higher education.

It’s quite clear – we can’t ignore the implications of how the recession will affect the IT environment. Will we see a move towards consolidation? Or is there a need for innovation? Will we see a great move towards use of Cloud Services to replace or complement services traditionally carried out in-house? Or our such Cloud Services themselves at risks? Will be see significant losses of staff within the sector and how would such changes affect IT development activities? And what of digital preservation – even more important at a time when services are likely to close, or a luxury which can only be considered during a time of growth?

I don’t think there are easy answers – but I will try and explore such issues in future posts. And I would be interested in your views on how cuts to the higher education sector’s budget are likely to affect IT development work.

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4 Responses to ““Cuts will bring us to our knees””

  1. AJ Cann said

    I guess the notion that education is some completely divorced from the rest of society has to go. If the cloud is more economic (and done right, it has to be) than lots of little local IT Services, then that’s what’s going to happen. There will be both good and bad things to come out of this. But let’s get serious. If we think one billion pounds worth of funding cuts are going to be soaked up by IT alone we’ll be disappointed. We’re all going to suffer.

  2. Christopher Gutteridge said

    Teaching and Learning (and research) are difficult to optimise, even with the use of technology and cheap energy. Manufacturing output per person is increased greatly by automation, but some jobs don’t lend themselves to this kind of optimisation (teaching, nursing, policing). To maintain the same standard pay for such jobs must be kept in line with industrial jobs of similar desirability, or people will quit to work in a factory or whatever. The result is that this kind of job will be paid based on the current GDP, not on generated value (which is nigh impossible to put a cash figure on, as it’s very long term, ie. the lifetime of the students who got educated).

    A move towards more cloudy IT makes some sense, but not if it means outsourcing to large foreign companies. The UK academic sector is big enough to have it’s own cloud services, thus at least reducing the number of lost jobs. Make it good enough and we can partly recoup the money by selling services to foreign universities and businesses.

    Ultimately, cuts will mean less (or lower quality) research, less (or worse educated) graduates. The government won’t want to cut student places, so instead lowers quality.

    The joke is that JISC is generally unwilling to fund ongoing services. It’s clear that we need a new stream of funding to start providing (and advertising) central .ac.uk IT services. The most obvious gap, IMO is that we need an event management system (similar to what CERN use), which can handle every step of running and and all parts of an event including managing the programme, allowing delegates to register and PAY, producing paper proceedings and publishing the papers in an Open Access manner. This service could be built in stages as it’s lots of related but decoupled parts. It could be partly subsidised, and cover other costs by charging a %age per booking taken through it, or for use by not .ac.uk groups. The shear amount of skilled man hours I’ve seen reinventing these wheels beggars belief (my own included). This being the real world, if it ever happens it would probably be project managed to death, like any large UK computer project :(

    • Like everyone, here in the JISC offices we are thinking hard about what the cuts mean and what the most sensible and practical response is, but as Brian points out, it’s not like we didn’t know it was coming. The recently published JISC strategy (http://bit.ly/671fsA) starts with doom and gloom about the worldwide recession and then goes on to list some of the priorities that JISC is still intent on tackling during the next 2 years and beyond.

      Included in the headings on the top page are:

      Management Information Systems
      Shared Services
      Cloud Computing

      So at the risk of sounding rather defensive (or bullish about JISC’s influence) perhaps there’s a pretty good chance that several of the areas of work that are talked about above might well get tackled.

      And as for any reluctance about funding services … well it’s true that we don’t start services without a lot of evidence and a lot of justification that it is the right service doing the right job on behalf of the community – but we haven’t got a bad record in this area and I think that a lot of people underestimate how many JISC services there actually are.

      http://www.jisc.ac.uk/whatwedo/services.aspx

      (n.b. I couldn’t put my hand on my heart and swear that this list is bang up to date!)

      • Christopher Gutteridge said

        Thanks for the response. One thing we keep discovering is that things we *could* have used to solve problems, already exist.

        Perhaps the IWMW community should start a wiki to share tools & resources (and give negative reviews too, if relevant). We’re very cautious about using cloud services, esp. free ones, for anything important as there’s no archive, we don’t own the URLs and there’s a risk of them just “going away”

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