NTU faces millennium time bomb

June 6, 1997

Nottingham Trent University has set aside Pounds 500,000 from next year's budget to deal with the so-called millennium muddle.

Prophets of doom have been forecasting catastrophe ever since it was realised that computer systems that rely on a two-digit short hand for the year (currently "97") will be unable to handle the roll over to "00".

NTU has employed consultant KPMG to conduct an audit into the problem and it will report next week.

However, most universities have so far been slow to react. Of ten universities randomly contacted by The THES, none had completed a full audit of computer systems to determine the size of the task ahead, only one had an identifiable person or group overseeing the problem and none had allocated a specific budget.

"If we do nothing we will simply cease to function as a university," said Ian Griffiths, director of computing services at NTU, who believes the millennium will be the biggest IT project he will ever be involved with.

The widespread refusal to face up to the problem has not been followed by the business sector which has been luring university IT staff away with hyped-up salaries. Their computer skills are badly needed by firms racing to update their software before the millennium, creating an acute shortage of programmers with knowledge of older software languages.

"This is a very good time to be an IT professional," said Mr Griffiths who has already lost one valued member of staff to the private sector. "The world is running out of personnel to fix these problems and this poses a real danger to universities. There is an awful lot to do in a limited time. This is one deadline, probably the only deadline, we can't miss."

Simon Marsden is chair of a group set up by the Universities and Colleges Information Systems Association looking at the millennium problem. "The difficulty for universities is the volume of the task rather than its technical complexity," said Mr Marsden, who is director of management information at Edinburgh University.

A typical university administrative system might contain more than 10,000 programs all of which could be affected. "And of course it is not a very sexy problem," Mr Marsden added. "No one wants to do the work unless they are paid a great deal of money."

Mr Marsden said it had been estimated that 350,000 IT professionals were needed to fix the problem in the UK in time and only 0,000 existed.

UCISA is taking legal opinion on whether suppliers can charge for upgrades to systems to ensure millennium compliance and has been running an email discussion on the wider issue for three weeks.

David Holdsworth, head of IT at Leeds University, is holding the first meeting of its millennium task group next week. "It is important to distinguish between systems which must be right before Christmas 1999 and things which can wait until the end of January 2000," he said. "The difficulty is that it is hard to work out how much money is at risk."

And it will be all too easy to overlook activities which most people do not think of as IT he added.

The automatic barrier at the entrance to the Leeds campus, for instance, could decide on January 1 not to let anyone in because all the parking permits have expired. And Mr Griffiths insisted he would not fly on January 1 2000. "No one will find every problem until the day itself," he said.

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