Austerity will usher in new technological age, v-c says

UUK president-elect foresees IT benefits among the coalition carnage. Hannah Fearn reports

March 17, 2011

Universities that are forced to get by on dwindling budgets will drive a revolution in information technology, the next president of Universities UK has predicted.

Eric Thomas, vice-chancellor of the University of Bristol, opened the Jisc annual conference in Liverpool this week by arguing that funding shortages would help to improve the use of IT within the academy.

He warned that state funding for universities would decrease faster than rises in tuition-fee income, but said this would encourage the sector to "do more with less" when it came to the use and development of new technology.

"This may well lead to important step changes in technology as we race to be even more effective," he said.

Speaking to Times Higher Education in advance of the conference, which took place on 14 and 15 March, Professor Thomas said that universities had been the "driving force" behind advancements in IT in the past, and today's challenges would herald a new era of innovation, particularly in technology used to facilitate academic research.

"Information technology will remain a key enabler in research, allowing us, for example, to carry out mammoth calculations in split seconds," he said.

"We are now very firmly in a knowledge economy and that is based on the ability to interpret and manipulate information. This is now reaching another tipping point as the connecting 'mash-up' of information from various and multiple disciplines and sources gives rise to new applications and discoveries - many of which might not be driven by the originator of the initial data."

Professor Thomas said the market would become more competitive for IT providers as universities sought to maximise the returns on their investments.

David Baker, deputy chair of Jisc, the UK's higher education IT consortium, agreed that the need to conduct research while saving cash would drive technological change.

"Think of where the internet came from. Most of the developments that we now see as standard were set up to improve research," he said. "There is a lot more to come."

Professor Baker said that shared services, including large cloud computing projects, would be significant cost savers for universities and would develop at the subject, institutional and mission group level.

However, he also acknowledged that Jisc would need to change to provide the support that the academy will need as budgets are slashed.

A review of Jisc's purpose and structure is currently under way, led by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

Feedback from universities has indicated that Jisc's focus on technological advancement meant that it did not always provide the day-to-day services many of them needed.

"One of the criticisms was that we are so far in front of the sector that (universities) found it difficult to appreciate what we offer," Professor Baker said.

"Nobody is suggesting that there shouldn't be a Jisc - it's just what kind of Jisc we want."

hannah.fearn@tsleducation.com.

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