ICT cuts ‘leave vaccine university vulnerable to cyberattacks’

Campaigners claim forcing staff to reapply for jobs with lower salaries will damage Imperial and leave institution vulnerable

December 2, 2020
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Staff at Imperial College London, which is working on a Covid-19 vaccine, have warned that cuts to the university’s ICT department could leave it vulnerable to cyberattacks.

The university has gone ahead with its cost-saving and restructuring plan of its ICT department, announced earlier this year, despite protestations from staff, the University and College Union (UCU) and the university’s Covid-19 response team.  

According to the university, to make the £2.7 million savings it needs, the university will reduce ICT numbers by 30 per cent – 75 jobs – and staff would be asked to reapply and compete for roles in the restructured department. So far, there have been 61 voluntary redundancies.

Staff at Imperial told Times Higher Education that when many staff were forced to reapply to the department, they were then offered roles at a reduced pay. “This is why so many people have taken up the voluntary redundancies, but some have felt forced to take the offers, despite the poorer conditions, because they need the money, especially during the pandemic,” one staff member said. “Morale in the department is very low indeed.”

“The cuts have already resulted in a significant loss of ICT skills and institutional knowledge,” said Tom Pike, professor in microengineering and Imperial College UCU vice-president. “This will have a knock-on effect on the rest of the institution, particularly at a time when staff and students are reliant on ICT for teaching and learning,” he added.

Researchers at Imperial also use specialised computer systems, which rely heavily on the quality of its ICT service, he said. In June, researchers at Imperial, who have led the way in the computer modelling of Covid-19, warned that the plans would harm their work, which is greatly supported by the ICT department.

It also could leave the institution vulnerable to cyberattacks. In September, the National Cyber Security Centre issued an alert after a spike in attacks on educational institutions, alongside reports that hostile states have been attempting to hack British universities and scientific facilities to steal research related to Covid-19.

While Imperial has not reported any cyberattacks yet, one member of staff said the restructuring has left the universities more exposed “to the extent that everything is overstretched at the moment”.

With the “high turnover of staff, loss of institutional knowledge and staff having to work both ‘old’ and ‘new’ roles, there’s increased likelihood of a poor response to an IT or business challenge”, they said.

An Imperial spokesperson said: “We are reforming our information technology services to enhance our support for our world-class research and education. This involves simplifying some processes and adopting a structure that makes it easier for us to respond quickly to the changing needs of our researchers and students.

“The urgent need to support remote working, teaching and learning since the pandemic makes these changes even more important. We continue to support those who are affected by these changes.”

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

Astonishing really, that firing 75 people and downgrading many who remain will "enhance support for world-class research and education." Perhaps the PR wallah who came up with that guff would like to consider whether their own position enhances support for word-class research education. Or, as is more likely, further damages the rather tarnished reputation of what claims to be a world-class instituion.

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