'Obsolete' networks pose handicap for academic research, warns report

October 6, 2006

Almost a third of UK universities have computer networks so old that consultants have labelled them "obsolete", writes Jessica Shepherd.

Consultants found evidence of computers up to 15 years out of date and old cabling that prevented high-speed internet access in 5*-rated university departments.

They also discovered that university systems for blocking illegitimate sites and hackers - known as firewalls - prevented academics using software that enabled them to talk over the internet with foreign research collaborators.

Consultancy firm Duke and Jordan were asked by the Joint Information Systems Committee, the organisation in charge of information technology in higher education, to examine the state of university computer networks.

The consultants quizzed academics at 60 university departments in 42 universities. They said at some institutions, IT provision was so poor it would have impaired academics' ability to conduct research.

Andy Jordan, one of the consultants, said: "There was evidence of really out-of-date computer networks - equipment that was ten to 15 years old. We were surprised at how many university departments had old cabling that would prevent high-speed internet access.

"Putting new cabling into old buildings is a major task and a university may well want to defer this. If there might be asbestos, the last thing a university will want to do is to start digging. We would have thought that universities would have replaced the cabling by now though.

"Increasingly, libraries and research are moving towards delivering information electronically. This needs a high-speed internet connection.

The software needed for videoconferencing with research collaborators from abroad also needs a high-speed connection.

"I would have thought that some of the obsolete networks would make it very difficult for academics in the UK to talk over the internet to their foreign counterparts."

Mr Jordan, a former director of computing services at Huddersfield University, said scientists were just as satisfied or dissatisfied with their computer networks as academics from the arts and humanities.

The consultants also discovered that easy access to a university's computer network meant academics were increasingly working from home or using "more flexible patterns of work".

Mr Jordan said: "This means more academics will be able to work part time for Edinburgh University and part time for the University of London because they won't have to visit either campus very often.

"Despite the problems, UK university networks are still among the best in the world. We are not lagging behind."

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