The higher education sector has never been more competitive. In the past two decades, participation in higher education has tripled, state funding has halved, and every university and college is under intense pressure to attract the brightest and best.
Like many of its competitors, Bournemouth University is constantly looking for ways to enhance the university experience for staff and students.
Mark Flexman, the university's IT infrastructure group manager, believes technology has a huge role to play in that process.
When the university announced plans to expand its building infrastructure in 2004, Flexman and his team spotted an opportunity to migrate the existing telephone systems from traditional analogue/digital switched systems to IP telephony. This, they were convinced, would offer some compelling benefits, said Flexman.
"First, we could extend telephony to new buildings with no incremental rise in management costs.
"Second, we could cut down on our cabling, because we would only need to run one cable supporting voice and data to each desktop.
"Finally, and most importantly, we saw that an IP telephony system would be able to support a wider range of services beyond simply making and receiving phone calls," he said.
Working with communicationreals specialist Damovo, Bournemouth University launched an IP telephony project for a trial group consisting of 40 administrative staff in January 2004.
"The three-month trial was a great success - employees were very comfortable with the new handsets and had no real problems in learning how to use the new services. This gave us the evidence we needed to push for a wider implementation of IP telephony," said Flexman.
Flexman's team got the go-ahead it needed to kit out a new administration block, and began rolling out Cisco 7940 IP phones to 300 staff during the summer of 2005.
Each of these phones includes a large pixel-based display, which enables staff to access web-based services direct from their phones.
In particular, they can use the phones to search university directories, perform new staff induction tasks and fill out staff satisfaction surveys.
Using a service button on the phone, staff can automatically log IT issues and estate problems, from broken windows to faulty heating systems, with the relevant support teams.
But it is not just university employees that are benefiting from IP telephony. The university has more than 1,500 beds in its halls of residence, and each student has for some years been given network access for their PCs direct from their rooms.
Now, the university runs an IP telephony subscription service. Those that sign up get an IP phone to plug into that network and can use it to receive calls in their rooms from family and friends. By buying a calling card they can make outgoing calls.
"Given how many of our students already have mobile phones, we were not anticipating much demand - we believed about one-third of students in halls would want IP telephony in their rooms," said Flexman.
In fact, about 700 students signed up - so for the 2006/2007 academic year, all 1,500 rooms in the halls of residence have been equipped with an IP phone.
Over the next three to five years, Flexman is planning to roll out IP telephony to all 2,000 extensions within the university telephone system.
He is also considering incorporating SMS text messaging services into the system, and predicts that videoconferencing may be available to students and staff by the 2007/2008 academic year.
"Once you have got an IP telephony system in place, so many options are open to you," he said.
"We want to be led by what users ask us for - even if it is just a button that links them direct to the local Pizza Hut. It is all about making life easier for the university population."firstname.lastname@example.org
This was first published in January 2007