Ten people in a small office at the University of Bath make up the team that has saved universities Pounds 900 million since 1988, by negotiating advantageous deals with suppliers of software and data. Now Chest, the Combined Higher Education Software Team, is breaking free of the university to become an independent, non-profit company.
With it comes Niss, another Bath campus spin-off. Niss is paid for by the funding councils, through the Joint Information Systems Committee, to provide a wide-ranging information service for higher education. Recently it has begun to profit from new Labour's push for electronic government, by hosting websites for the Welsh Assembly and other national and local government customers.
The services will be run by an independent charitable company, EduServ. Mike Johnson, its director, intends it to become a registered charity. "Surpluses will get fed back to the community," he said.
David Cook, the JISC secretariat member responsible for the spin-off, said:
"The initiative was really led by the management boards of Chest and Niss." The managers first raised the possibility with JISC in February, and were asked to produce a business plan. A specialist company, Sayer-Vincent, was commissioned to produce a plan which JISC broadly approved last week, though there are still some details to be worked out.
Chest, which operates as a broker between universities and software and data vendors, is already virtually self-supporting. "Chest is now mature enough to be a free standing organisation," Mr Cook said.
James Davenport, director of information technology at the University of Bath, praised Chest's achievements and the negotiating skill of its director: "They have made a tremendous difference to the way higher education buys software, data and services. Nigel Lodge is probably the best software buyer in the world."
Professor Davenport said that the spinoff of the two services is "financially neutral" to the university. "I would have been very happy if they had carried on as a part of the University of Bath," he said. An effect is that Bath is likely to lose its number two position in The THES league table of computer spending per student.
Bath's position as host for several important national data services has its origins in the 1980s, when it was a regional computer centre. Its ICL mainframes served the academic computing needs of all southwest England's universities. As computers became cheaper and universities acquired their own, the regional centres were in danger of becoming redundant. London and Manchester found new roles as supercomputer centres. Bath decided to become a data centre.
Niss and Chest were set up at that time, as was the bibliographic data service Bids. Bids was the first of the three to be spun off. In September 1998 a company, Ingenta, was formed to run the service under contract to the university. "I promoted this as a way of getting private finance into Bids," said Ingenta's managing director Mark Rowse. As it carries no advertising, few people know that Bids is one of the UK's busiest websites. "Though it is not audited, the Bids site would rank seventh in the UK in page views, and 16th in unique visitors per month," Mr Rowse said. Bids offers free searching of 20 million abstracts. Increasingly users are able to click through to full text articles, provided they have a subscription to the journal concerned or make a one-off payment by credit card. Mr Rowse said that usage of Bids full text resources is growing by 30 per cent every month.
Ingenta has just added 1,000 journals from Elsevier Science to the 1,000 from other publishers already on its database. The Elsevier titles will be online by the end of July. The company is looking for new customers in large research-based companies and other, less obvious businesses such as the media.
Unlike the charitable EduServ, Ingenta is a fully commercial venture in which the University of Bath made sure it retained a 24.9 per cent stake.