University says multimillion-pound virtual working environment will slash bureaucratic burdens. Tony Tysome reports
Academics' working lives could be improved dramatically as institutions begin to invest millions of pounds in technology that promises to slash bureaucracy and paperwork, it was claimed this week.
Cardiff University said that it was leading the way in a technological revolution that its information technology managers predicted would transform the way academics worked - lightening their administrative load, providing them with powerful new tools for teaching and research, and even helping them to organise their social lives.
The University and College Union welcomed the initiative, but warned that IT must not be seen as a panacea for excessive workloads and bureaucracy.
Cardiff signed a multimillion-pound three-year partnership with computer giant IBM to create virtual working and learning environments that can connect academics and students across the globe.
While most academics have access to some of the features of Cardiff's "modern IT working environment", such as online tutorials and lectures and instant messaging services, the initiative is being hailed as a leap forward because it brings all the latest IT advances together in a single system that staff can tailor to their own needs and preferences. The system includes tools that help staff create and automatically update grant applications.
Martyn Harrow, Cardiff's director of information services, said: "We are establishing a new set of capabilities and services in the university in the things that we can do with IT to help academics, students and administrators.
"For academics, a big benefit is that it will help them to streamline administrative tasks to help lift the burden of bureaucracy.
"We are also introducing "smart" features that will help staff to manage things such as information overload. The key is that they will be able to personalise the system so that they have access to all the features that they want and find useful.
"This system will help cut down on the things that distract academics from the work they want to do by providing them with the best environment to manage their working and social lives."
Sally Hunt, UCU joint general secretary, said: "Any moves to try to counter the ever-increasing levels of bureaucracy should be applauded.
"However, switching administrative duties from paper to online is no way to guarantee success.
"In the past, IT-based strategies were lauded as the answer to administrative problems, but our recent survey discovered that e-mails were often cited as one of the main causes of stress, heavy workloads and bureaucracy.
"We hope this new system will improve things, but nobody should rely too heavily on it."
Simon Walton, a PhD student at Portsmouth University who presented a paper at this week's Society for Research into Higher Education conference on academics' use of technology, said: "The most important thing is that staff perceive it as useful. If they don't, they won't use it.
"If a university or department cannot persuade staff that it is both useful and easy to use, then it will not go anywhere."