UK Web Focus (Brian Kelly)

Innovation and best practices for the Web

The Cuts: Implications For Our IT Environment

Posted by Brian Kelly on 20 Oct 2010

The Future Is Bleak

At last, after a long time waiting, we’ve heard the news. The government’s Comprehensive Spending Review has been announced – and the future is bleak. Very bleak As described in page 52 of the Spending Review document (PDF):

overall resource savings of 25 per cent, comprising 40 per cent savings from reform of higher education and an average 16 per cent savings from the other areas of the BIS budget, with relative protection for science and key elements of adult skills funding.

And it’s worth noting that such reductions are dependent on the Browne recommendations are passed (p. 54 box 2.3 para 2.).

It’s not just the future which is being decimated – the children who are still at school and wondering what awaits them when they reach the age of 18, the students and researchers who are currently at university and the large numbers of staff across our institutions who are facing a time of uncertainty. We will also losing our past – the investment which has been made across the educational sector, the skills and experiences large numbers of teaching and research staff possess, the research centres, departments and, let’s not mince words, the institutions whose survival is under threat and, of relevance to this blog and readers of this blog, the digital services which have been developed and exploited to support teaching and learning and research.

What Might We Expect?

However rather than address the broader issues I’d like to give some thoughts on the implications for those involved in development  activities and the provision of online services. My predictions for the remainder of the Government’s term of office are:

Social Web Services: I’ve recently described the trends of services such as Facebook (Planet Facebook Becomes Less of a Walled Garden), iTunesU (What Are UK Universities Doing With iTunesU?) and YouTube (How is the UK HE Sector Using YouTube?). Facebook does now seem to be widely used (with Facebook Groups, reviewed recently in the Guardian, likely to increase its usage in new areas), even if this is not necessarily acknowledged, and iTunes Edu and YouTube Edu are being used by the early adopters.  I predict that these will all be mainstream services across the sector (indeed UCAS ran a day’s Social Media Marketing conference Monday which covered topics such as “Facebook: How to maximise the exposure of your institution“, “ Why Twitter should be a key part of your institution’s marketing strategy“, “YouTube Education/iTunes U” and “Social media ROI – what’s in it for me?“) and the doubts regarding commercialisation and technical considerations will be marginalised.

Google Apps:  The University of Sheffield uses Google to provide an email services for its students and has recently announced that the service will be expanded to members of staff.   Expect this trend to continue as universities look at the costs of providing such services in-house and question what benefits are gained.  Issues such as the Data Protection Act will cease to be regarded as an obstacle to use of third party email services.

Personal Learning Environments:  A growth in use of Social Web services, Google Apps and other Cloud Services will see an appreciation of the importance of Personal learning Environments (PLEs) with student using a variety of services to support their learning.

Importance of Mobile Devices:  With users looking to make use of the mobile devices they own and institutions concerned about the costs of providing PC clusters the importance of mobile devices would seem to be inevitable.

User is King: With students paying significantly more to attend University, the relationship between the institution and the student will change.  The institution will no longer be the provider of an IT infrastructure to grateful users; rather the institution will be expected to be much more responsive in supporting student needs.

The Demise of the Institution?:  At the CETIS 2007 conference Professor Oleg Lieber speculated on the demise of the institution. In the opening talk he quoted Illich:  “Society created institutions to serve society. But they have become counter productive to their original intent… they now exist to benefit themselves rather than the betterment of society“.    This speculation was based on IT developments rather than the funding crisis.  But if it would be wrong to suggest that higher educational  institutions will disappear the authority and power of HEIs will diminish.

Decoupling of Links Between Staff and the Institution:  As academics, researchers, developers and support staff will be uncertain about their careers we can expect increasing numbers to wish to make use of Cloud Services which will provide continuity of access if they move from their current institution.

Amplified Events: The trend towards amplified and online events will grow and concerns that “it’s rude” will disappear. Speakers will be expected to allow their presentations to be streamed, with the argument being made that since the tax-payer has paid for such talks transparency and openness requires them to be made widely accessible. Environmental factors will also support such arguments.

Tensions Over Openness: Although the government is encouraging greater openness and transparency which would appear to reflect the interests of many of those supporting open access to, for example, research publication, scientific data and educational resources, financial concerns may result in institutions seeking commercial exploitation of their resources and moving away from opening up access to their resources.

Deletion of Existing Services: Existing online services will be shut down.  There will be pressures to ensure that valuable data is not lost.

These are my initial thoughts on the implications of the cuts.  In some respects they describe trends which may be obvious  – for example Andy Powell has recently commented on the  “trend towards outsourcing and shared services, with the outsourcing of email and other apps to Google being the most obvious example“, “the whole issue of student expectations“, “the whole growth of mobile – the use of smart-phones, mobile handsets, iPhones, iPads and the rest of it”  and “the emerging personal learning environment (PLE) meme … where lecturers and students work around their institutional VLE by choosing to use a mix of external social web services (Flickr, Blogger, Twitter, etc.) again encourages the use of external services“.

I think the future will be very different from today – but, despite misgivings we may have, we will need to accept many changes in order to survive.

These are my thoughts. Do you agree?  What have I missed?  How should we respond?


8 Responses to “The Cuts: Implications For Our IT Environment”

  1. I wonder if the real changes will be rather more mundane – at both institutional and national level. For ICT-related stuff:

    – The business case for IT-related activities will become much more important (some of this came up at IWMW).

    – Things will be costed much more thoroughly (including costing of staff time, notably when comparing internal services to external services).

    – ‘Luxuries’ will get whittled away even further (e.g. travel to conferences).

    – There will be greater use of shared services and outsourcing of one kind or another (driven by efficiency savings).

    For teaching, we will see much less f2f teaching time per student (in most courses) leading to greater use of ‘distance learning’ methods and greater use of ICT.

    For research, I’m not sure. It’s possible we’ll see something of a drain of expertise to overseas and much greater chasing of research funding from outside the research councils (e.g. from commerce, overseas, etc.). ‘Gaming’ the REF will become paramount. This may have an effect on the notions of research impact and assessment and corresponding changes in behaviour. Sorry, I’m out of my depth here.

    • Sorry, I’m out of my depth here – you’re not the only one, this is unprecedented territory for us all.

      I don’t disagree with any of your speculations. I think there is a need to have more open discussions about possible future scenarios and how we should respond.

  2. Parallels a lot of my thoughts too.

    I also think that open source may make a bigger impact and I can see a sort of shared service developing for web developers based around mobile devices.

    I also believe that the majority of our institutions, and more importantly our IT Services, don’t actually know what to do. It’s like a rabbit in the headlights syndrome. They need some leadership and a lot of guidance as to how looking for external solutions might just help them out of a hole and are not a threat.

  3. Commenting as a tech-enthusiastic research student/user (rather than an edtech expert), the last para rings very true. I use Posterous, Evernote, Gmail, Twitter in my studies. I bemoan uni webmail for it’s flakiness and constant exhortations to empty my inbox, despite it containing very few emails…

    Understand universities wanting to have control of their own IT structures and reluctance to relinquish control to Google et al. However, in my experience, the uni stuff just doesn’t work as well. Just my experience, have no idea of how well taken up uni tech is by students.

    Would like to be pointed towards any broader points to be made against PLEs around access to technology, but not sure if it’s worth fighting against?

  4. The big change for traditionally research-based universities will be the need to give student customers paying through the nose more of what they want, and keep up with the goodies that other competing institutions offer their students. On the whole students like to use web-based services, so on the face of it web teams have nothing to lose by this? The trick will be in supporting growing expectations with flat-lined resources – meaning any residual managerial queasiness over “selling out” and delivering homogenised services co-branded with Google, Facebook or Amazon is likely to evaporate. I’ve said before that it would be foolish to shrink web teams in this situation for this reason, but there’s no doubt that logic can go awry in funding situations like these.

    • I agree with you that there will be a need to be responsive to students’ requests – and, as you say, in many cases this will be mainstream Web services.

      This could provide opportunities for Web teams provided, as you say “any residual managerial queasiness over “selling out”” disappears.

  5. Davenport said

    But, and this is unfortunately more a hope than an expectation, institutions might read page 32 of Browne, which said that students value knowing what their contact time is (and I assume more=better here, at least up to some limit). In this case, they might try to reduce some of the bureaucracy that they themselves impose on academics.

  6. […] the contested nature of the place of technology within higher education in the face of cuts, and the impact on the HE environment. Brian argues that “we will need to accept many changes in order to survive”. Acceptance is not […]

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