Many IT teams in further education colleges are lacking at least some facet of IT skills, according to member organisation Jisc.
When looking into IT infrastructure reviews of further education colleges – the level of education between secondary education and a degree – over the past four years, Jisc found that most colleges have an IT skills shortage among technology staff, with IT teams not receiving recent tech training in some cases.
Skills shortages are often down to IT teams being smaller, with the mean user to IT support staff ratio in further education colleges around 814:1. Jisc reported that IT teams can be left in the lurch if even one long-standing team member leaves the organisation and takes their skills with them.
“Our most popular ‘next step’ service following infrastructure review is the IT support skills assessment, which aims to map the current IT teams skills and knowledge to identify key person dependencies, to identify specific skills gaps and to identify any associated risks,” said the report.
While technology adoption in the UK’s education system is increasing, a lack of funding, appropriate infrastructure and tech knowledge can stand in the way of education providers properly utilising technology.
But increased pressure has been put on schools, colleges and universities during the pandemic to keep people learning remotely, despite many students or organisations not having the appropriate technology to provide digital learning, all while suffering from concerns such as an increase in attempted cyber attacks.
Jisc is a not-for-profit which supports, and provides digital solutions for, further and higher education organisations across the UK, and over the past four years has performed 118 infrastructure reviews among Jisc members to help these organisations understand where they are doing well and where they could improve.
While many colleges are suffering from skills shortages among IT staff, Jisc found that those performing well were more likely to have a spread of skills throughout the technology team, rather than a single member of staff with a particular skill, which can put an organisation at risk of a skills gap if that individual leaves.
It also allows teams to “share core responsibilities” such as cyber, and Jisc said higher performing IT teams have well-considered succession planning in place to prevent “critical key person dependencies” and to boost morale among team members.
Jisc’s report also highlighted IT teams in colleges performed better where there had been recent opportunities for continuing professional development (CPD), also reducing turnover of staff members.
Further education IT support teams have reduced in size over the past two years, according to Jisc, which also found that colleges are usually higher performing when the IT support teams are appropriately sized. While some colleges can get away with having smaller support teams, it’s usually in cases where the college has invested in automation or systems management tools to work alongside a smaller number of support staff.
In cases where colleges have someone in charge of technology as a function, such as a CIO or CTO, colleges are often more able to implement new infrastructure technology because of “improved organisation-wide technology decision-making”.
Where IT leaders had recent technical and managerial training, an experienced background and an understanding of the business, IT teams also performed better.
When it comes to preventing technology skills gaps in college IT teams, Jisc offered an IT support skills self-assessment toolkit so teams can identify where there might be gaps or dependencies within a team, and can provide help with organisation design and recruitment for Jisc members, as well as training and sharing of best practice.
One of the biggest barriers for colleges when it comes to improvement of IT infrastructure is capital investment, which can often cause organisations to hold on to technology too long, making it more difficult to replace.
One area colleges are struggling in is networking provisions such as wide-area networks (WAN), local-area networks (LAN), wireless local-area networks (WLAN) and telephony, and Jisc claimed “only a small minority” of further education organisations have a “resilient internet connection”.
Jisc said this is a concern as a result of increased used of cloud-based services or software as a service (SaaS), and a majority of colleges have deployed SaaS provision of email, calendaring and some other services as well.
The report said: “The increased use of SaaS means that the internet connection is one of the most serious ‘single points of failure’ in a college’s IT infrastructure.”
Citing best practices, Jisc said the colleges with “best resilience” were the ones with separately routed secondary links and a configured border gateway protocol to ensure failover to a secondary internet connection without interrupting service, among other things.
When it comes to security, Jisc found many organisations don’t have offline backup systems, and only the most digitally advanced colleges are able to plan, rehearse and revise backup and disaster recovery processes.
While networks and security may be lacking in some areas, most colleges have sufficient servers and storage, with a majority of colleges having virtualised on-premise sever infrastructure and good storage capacity.