The cost and importance of higher education mean the sector is always open to scrutiny. Whether that’s from politicians, journalists or even their own staff and students.
So much so that recently, the French president Emmanuel Macron outlined proposals that would shake up how European universities work, former UK education minister Andrew Adonis suggested downgrading ex-polytechnic institutions, and University World News discussed the problems with the Zimbabwean government’s push for a greater focus on STEM subjects.
At times it feels like the list of demands placed on universities is so long that fulfilling it is impossible. And that nothing the sector does will satisfy its numerous stakeholders.
The unfortunate upshot of this is that technology and availability failures which compromise the student experience and staff ability to work effectively are judged more harshly than they were in the pre-digital era of higher education. Especially now that universities are constantly watched over by government departments and regulatory bodies that manage everything from fees to the student experience.
It’s led to a situation in which application and data availability are absolutely crucial to both the smooth running of a university, as well as to ensuring that it only makes the headlines for the right reasons.
To understand the availability challenges faced by universities, it’s necessary to look at the various user groups they have to cater for with their services. As well as their particular needs.
Obviously, there are the students. Today they expect easy access to resources, learning portals and information from universities they are told are becoming more and more connected. And they want seamless experiences, characterised by consistent availability wherever they are and at whatever time of the day they are working. Whether that’s at 4am in a library, rushing to complete a paper. Or at midday on campus, looking to access important information, like timetables and classroom materials.
Significantly, while these demands may feel fairly standard, giving students constant access is very important for universities – for both reputation and finance.
In a 2014 piece for The Guardian, Peter Scott (emeritus professor at UCL) wrote about the increased influence of the student experience. While Times Higher Education runs a yearly student experience survey – the results of which often take on a very different look to traditional global or national rankings.
Combined, they tell us that the experience of current students determines where prospective ones choose to apply. In an age of endless peer review, ‘I can’t ever access services and resources’ can be a pretty damaging write up for even the most respected institution.
Moving beyond students, universities must also have an eye on faculty and administrative staff.
The former are often tasked with creating interactive and data-informed classroom experiences that match the needs of students. And with digitally distributing learning materials and resources that cater for self and remote learners.
While the latter (admin staff) are reliant on applications to communicate with students and colleagues. And on data to boost university revenue through alternative streams like virtual, online campuses that can appeal to a wider mix of students.
These numerous high demands on universities mean that availability and business continuity are vital elements of a modern institution’s technology portfolio. Of course, a lack of tools or resources could mean a missed deadline for a student. But, perhaps more serious is the higher education institution’s duty to data management and protection.
Continuity over availability
Universities house huge amounts of highly sensitive, valuable data (everything from personal information to bank details). And there are a number of access points to that data – some of which can be easily exploited if the correct recovery, backup and data loss avoidance measures are not in place.
This makes universities a huge target for cyber criminals and, increasingly, internal hackers.
In late 2016, for example, a Russian hacker managed to get into 63 universities and government agencies. While in 2015 a student hacked into the University of Birmingham’s computer systems in order to improve exam results. Both cases showcase the value of higher education data to the wrong sort of people. And demonstrate the onus on universities to protect data by closing availability gaps and improving their technology environments.
How these improvements are manifested will depend on the nature of the university in question. Factors like student body size, whether it’s a campus or college university and region all influence the eventual solution.
However, generally speaking, data and applications have to be supported with backup plans that can be put in place within minutes, rather than hours. Alongside almost immediate, using constantly updated copies of data, applications and media.
In turn, this should all be supported with testing, visibility, monitoring and reporting. So IT leaders can understand their environments and potential issues within them sooner rather than later.
The higher education sector is changing. People are constantly trying to manage universities with greater efficiency and profitability. And, with expectations going up, it’s only likely that there will be more scrutiny placed on the sector in the future.
It is hugely positive that technology is becoming such a key enabler for education, be it delivering materials, enabling new types of study, or assisting with research and other creative projects. However, IT leaders must remember that data and availability issues will have an unfortunately long lifeline in the minds of administrators and government officials.
Improving availability is not just a chance to improve access to critical facilities or aid the reliability of resources. It’s a chance to make everyday life on campus that little bit easier and more efficient.
Mark Adams, Regional VP, UK&I, Veeam