A generation that has grown up with technology at its fingertips is forcing universities to look at technology in a different way.
The hike in university fees has presented higher education with one of the biggest competitive challenges to face its institutions.
Universities must invest in their IT and particularly networks in a more business-like manner if they are to compete. Students today frown upon any disruption in services in the same way bank customers do. Chances are, poor networks will make some universities less attractive.
Businesses have already recognised the demands of a new generation and they too are trying to build computing environments that suit the ways of working their staff demand.
University networks are becoming critical for the provision of student services and educational resources, as well as providing university administration with efficiencies.
Coventry University deputy vice-chancellor, John Latham, says the network at Coventry University has become the fourth utility, alongside water, gas and electricity. "Everything revolves around the computer network," he said. Coventry University’s network delivers Wi-Fi across the entire university premises, uses VoIP, runs its CCTV on the infrastructure, has created a "Smart Campus" where students can access almost anything with a smart card. The network also provides building management such as switching off lights when rooms are not in use.
The communications network needs to be on tap at every campus, halls of residence and on students’ own mobile devices, providing personalised access to everything.
Latham says the main difference between big business and universities, in terms of providing organisational IT, is the fact that the user bases are so different. "A business might have 22,000 employees that it has to service with its IT infrastructure, but we have 22,000 students who are customers using our infrastructure every day," he says. "Customer satisfaction is one of the main measures of our success." These users often have their own devices, work at all hours and require unfettered access to systems.
Universities may have been later to the IT innovation party than many in the private sector, but they are being forced to catch up quickly. Mike Roberts, IT director at Warwick University, says universities realised the importance of their IT in the same way that private sector companies did 10 years ago. "There is a growing realisation in institutions that without IT, the organisation simply does not work."
He says universities face major challenges satisfying demanding students. "Students expect high standards, and will compare us against other universities and expect the same level of service they get from companies such as Google."
Roberts adds that universities have a unique challenge of taking on thousands of new users every year. "What's different about a university, compared with other organisations, is that we get 5,000 people turning up every year with new ideas and expectations."
These users will also be paying through their noses for an education from these universities. As a result, they will be as demanding as a bank customer.
Cost cutting through IT is perhaps the next phase for universities with more back-office savings on the horizon. For instance, Anglia Ruskin University has outsourced student-facing IT systems to enable it to serve students across the world, 24 hours a day.
The institution, which has 32,000 students, outsourced its student-facing website and information system to Bluesource to ensure systems are always available.
Assistant director of IT Gregor Waddell says the university realised it needed around-the-clock availability when it started supporting students in different time zones. The university could no longer risk systems going down out of hours. The university, which has two main campuses in Cambridge and Chelmsford, supports students in different countries, including Malaysia, China and Trinidad.
"We were not large enough to provide a 24/7 support system in-house," says Waddell. By outsourcing the monitoring of systems to Bluesource, the university's 60 IT staff will be able to focus on other areas.
The online learning resources the university has are not currently supported by Bluesource, but may be in the future.
Once universities have got their ships in order there are further opportunities to cut their operating costs, such as by centralising IT services. Richard Oliver, director of strategy at network provider BT iNet, which has worked closely with Warwick and Coventry Universities, says organisations have consolidated their IT in recent years, but there could be more consolidation to come.
“In the past, universities had very federated IT – different faculties had different networks. Each faculty would have their own budget – different builds, different designs and different suppliers.”
But today, more and more services are across the campus, he adds, and shared services with other universities could be the next big challenge.
University networks and the IT that underpins them have huge expectations placed upon them. They need the resilience to offer uninterrupted access to educational resources and must be as least as good as their competitors’ networks to meet the needs of an unforgiving user base.