UK Web Focus (Brian Kelly)

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Archive for Jan 20th, 2010

Save £1million and Move to the Cloud?

Posted by Brian Kelly on 20 Jan 2010

University of Westminster Deploys Google Apps

Before Christmas a message on the UCISA-Announce JISCMail list provided details of a University of Westminster goes Google Case Study. The email described how:

When the University of Westminster asked students what campus email system they wanted, 90% requested Google Apps, which lets colleges and universities provide customized versions of Gmail, Google Docs, Google Calendar, and other services on their school domain

and went on to describe how:

As a result, 25,000 students and staff at the University of Westminster now use Google Apps Education Edition — saving the university £1 million in the process“.

Perhaps unsurprisingly the case study itself is available on Google Docs.

Should All Our Institutions be Doing This?

We know from Peter Mandelson’s announcement that the higher education sector is set to lose about £900m of its funding over the next few years –  and in an article published recently in The Guardian entitled “Universities tell Gordon Brown: cuts will bring us to our knees” Universities were warning of the dangers of cuts of the order of up to £2.5bn.  And if, as appears likely, the Conservative party returns to power it is likely that a similar level (or perhaps even greater) level of cutbacks will be seen.

So how might the sector attempt to square the circle of maintaining the quality of its teaching and learning and research in the face of such cuts?  “Impossible”, you might think – and I would agree. But how might we go about minimising the impact of such cuts? Perhaps it is time for IT Services to radically reappraise the traditional approaches to the provision and hosting of services used to support institutional activities.

I believe there are over 160 higher educational institutions in the UK.  If all of them were to migrate to Google Apps, as the University of Westminster has done, this might make a significant saving for the sector – perhaps £160m if the cost saving reported by the University of Westminster was a typical average across the sector.

The Risks

Yes there are risks. These were discussed at the Educause 2009 conference last October. Chris Sexton, IT Services director at the University of Sheffield described a debate on the relevance of Cloud Services to higher educational institutions in a post on “Cloud computing – Hope or Hype?“. After summarising the key points Chris concluded:

So that was the debate in a nutshell. I went in firmly on the “hope ” side but tried to listen objectively, and I must say my mind wasn’t changed! The “hype” arguments came over as defensive and ill informed. She made a big thing of it just being a cost cutting exercise, but in the current financial climate I couldn’t see what was wrong with that! Many of the other issues she raised we’ve dealt with – vendor lock-in is something we’re all familiar with (hello – Microsoft anyone?). The privacy and security issues are being addressed, and the service levels of many of the vendors are better than those we’re providing – we’re just lucky that when our services go down they don’t hit the press!

I recently floated the suggestion that “Web 2.0 Changes Everything“. I think I was wrong – I think, for the UK’s higher education sector, it will be the cutbacks which will change everything for several years to come.  And unlike the changes which Margaret Thatcher brought about in the 1980s, this time there isn’t an alternative waiting impotently in the wings – it doesn’t matter which party wins the next election, the cuts will come.

And the debates we’ve had in the IT sector in the past about the dangers of vendor lock-in, the legal risks in trusting third party services with our data and the conflicts with EU data protection rules and UK legislation will, I suspect, be brushed aside. I am aware that in a post entitled Should I continue hosting blogs and wikis on campus? Stephen Downes feels that the answer is “Well, no, it’s not OK to host Canadian student data on an American server. Privacy laws are quite different between the two countries, and Canada admits students that the Americans may have an interest in spying upon“. These issues are even more relevant in the UK, with the more stringent data protection requirements across the EU, but I suspect there may be political maneuvers around such concerns such as the “Safe Harbor agreement”. It’salso worth adding that Stephen Downes’ comments were madein reponse to an initial blog post published on the D’arcyNorman blog – with Scott Leslie responding that he is “increasingly back pedaling on this: partly because it paints the issue as too black and white“.

I think we need to live with this changed environment. In an opinion piece entitled “The one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work for higher education” published in yesterday’s issue of the Times Higher Education University of Bath vice-chancellor Glynis Breakwell argued that “universities should stop assuming that everybody has to do a bit of everything“. We need to stop assuming that we need to host commodity services such as email, I feel.

And if you don’t like this suggestion, how do you propose to make a saving of £160 million? Do you really think we can sacrifice an institution (the University of Poppleton, perhaps) and hope that this will be enough for us to continue as we did in the past?

PS. There May Also be Opportunities!

I have pictured a move to the ousourcing of email and office applications as an option which institutions need to consider in light of cutbacks. But perhaps we should regard this impetus as an opportunity to enhance the services provided to our users. After all, as Chris Sexton pointed out in a post entitled “You can be a victim of your own success” following the decision to provide Google Mail for students at the University of Sheffield:

Formally announced the Google mail for students option last night by sending an email to all staff and students. Replies are split almost 50/50. From students saying this is great news, and from staff saying why can’t we have it!

And as I described at the start of this post: “When the University of Westminster asked students what campus email system they wanted, 90% requested Google Apps“.  Giving users what they want and freeing money to support core institutional activities which can’t be provided by commercial companies – why not?

Posted in Finances | 10 Comments »