Universities face a balancing act as they become increasingly expected to improve the experiences of more demanding students while making budgets go further, and IT is a critical tool in finding this balance.
As course fees are introduced students will be more conscious of what they get for their money. Students are more tech-savvy than ever so the IT infrastructure at universities will be critical. Students may be more concerned about the number of Wi-Fi hubs rather than pubs these days.
Coventry University deputy vice chancellor, John Latham, said universities have to provide better services for fee-paying students, of which IT is one of the most important.
At first glance it might appear that universities are in a similar position to enterprises. But the unique challenges faced by universities set them apart from most businesses and public sector bodies.
Latham said 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 said. "Customer satisfaction is one of the main measures of our success."
Add to this the fact that these users often have their own devices, work strange hours and require unfettered access to systems, and you can begin to understand the challenges facing IT leaders within higher education.
Because communication and access is key for a university, the network has become king. Latham said the network at Coventry University has become the fourth utility, alongside water, gas and electricity.
"Everything revolves around the computer network," he said. For example the university 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, and is used for building management such as switching off lights when rooms are not in use."
The network infrastructure presents challenges to the university that businesses do not face.
Universities have to provide an IT environment that will cope with the technology that students are using and one that can cater for more and more users part-time outside the campus or even overseas. "We have to make sure they can get access and support."
There is a security challenge in that a compromise must be made between accessibility and security. "We do not control user devices or where they connect from. Enterprises protect everything to the same level, which is the easiest thing to do," said Latham. "A lot of people could be freer than they are, but enterprises put in a level of security that is beyond what is required. We have to ensure we have the right systems available with the right level of security and capacity."
Despite this openness, the high volumes of personal information held by universities means security is as much a priority at universities as it is for enterprises. For example, the University of York's accidental breach of thousands of students' personal data pointed to a need for improved security checks, according to the Information Commissioner's Office. It failed to close a test area on its website that contained thousands of students' personal details. The ICO found the university in breach of the Data Protection Act after finding 148 records were accessed without authorisation in September 2009.
Universities have also had their funding cut, so have to do more with less. But cost-cutting and improved student experience can both be achieved through IT investments. Smart cards can serve multiple purposes. For example one card can give students the access they are allowed, it can be a library card and even a payment card for on-campus purchases.
Paper-based enrolment procedures will also become a thing of the past and once enrolled students will automatically be linked into other services they are entitled to. This will save money in the back office and front line.
Universities like never before have to become more business-like. In the past, students hardly gave a second thought to the services being offered by universities because they were not paying for them so directly. Today it is different, and universities will have to offer students top notch services beyond academic ones. But this scenario could be the opportunity for IT to demonstrate its ability to cut costs and improve services.