Slash wasteful IT spend and invest in academics instead – expert

Former government adviser says a modest cut in operating costs could allow for a doubling of the number of UK academics

April 16, 2024
 Scrap yard of computers for salvage of gold from integrated illustrate Slash wasteful IT spend and invest in academics instead – expert
Source: Michel Baret/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

UK universities should rip up a lot of their “back-end nonsense”, tackle managerial bloat and stop shelling out for different versions of the same technology to allow them to return to their core missions and heavily invest in academic jobs, according to an influential professor who has helped to pioneer a new approach to digital infrastructure in the public sector.

Higher education institutions are afflicted by the same problems as local councils, government departments and the NHS in that they are legacy organisations that have grown in silos and are all trying to reinvent the wheel, Mark Thompson, professor in digital economy at the University of Exeter, told Times Higher Education’s Digital Universities UK conference in Exeter.

This has fuelled a rapid expansion in bureaucracy, meaning that much of universities’ budgets for digital transformation goes on maintaining “business as usual” and that leaders “spend most of their time keeping the lights on”, he said.

“Universities have been going the wrong way for some time…in cutting academic [posts], courses and research, and at the same time we are ballooning administrative activity,” Professor Thompson told the conference.

Pointing out that many universities now employ more administrators than academics, Professor Thompson called for universities to refocus on their “day one” activities of teaching and learning. “If the number of people supporting this starts to dwarf the number of people on that front line, then there is something wrong.”

Professor Thompson, a former government adviser on technology who has led several digital infrastructure projects, including creating a uniform jobs board for the NHS, said a “fundamental restructure” was needed, with a particular focus on platform-sharing across institutions, especially for the parts that “nobody cares about”.

A “radical transformation” that reduced operating costs by 20 per cent could save the sector £10 billion, he said, and potentially fund 240,000 new academic posts, doubling the number of scholars in the country.

Given that most universities are having to cut jobs to deal with deficits, competitors are creating alternative models of education and the public is showing signs of “losing faith with the product”, universities were faced with an “existential situation” and could be “killed off” if they did not take action, Professor Thompson said.

But higher education institutions are still “laggards” when it comes to digital investment and managerialism, and silos were preventing them from pivoting, creating a risk that “we are just going to get the next generation of terrible, awful legacy infrastructure”.

Instead, Professor Thompson continued, what was needed was “collective, sector-wide transformation”, with shared platforms the “only thing that is going to save us”.

The creation of the NHS jobs board – which brought together opportunities from 215 trusts – was one example of a “potential way we could start ripping through this back-end nonsense that goes on in universities”, he said.

Professor Thompson added that there was a role for the government in facilitating more sharing across institutions and that vice-chancellors had to take responsibility rather than leaving it to their chief technology officers.

“Just imagine if we took all that budget that we spend again and again and again [and put it towards] building a true…sector-beating offering,” he said. “You can do it cheaply and quickly and you can share this stuff, but we have to stop buying salami-sliced versions of the same thing from our suppliers.”

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Reader's comments (4)

If only we could do it! I am retiring but if not, I would have to waste more time porting material to new software or getting used to new systems. Great article but I doubt that any university has the guts to take on vested interests and sort out IT.
And another academic whining about professional services staff. I doubt Tom Williams has the slightest idea of real-world IT.
Having worked in an IT Department for over 2 decades I agree wholeheartedly with the Professor. The rise of a Project Management model with ludicrous levels of governance has shifted resources away from delivering solutions to administering projects. Rafts of long documents are being created that are read once. The sector are like sheep, when a new solution is needed, the first response is to see how the university next door is doing it. Even when new products are purchased, they are rarely implemented as they should be, rather shoehorned in to accommodate legacy issues as nobody has the stomach to address them. Money is wasted on buying 'shiny' new kit to impress senior leaders leaving nothing for critical student applications. Duplicate systems are purchased as nobody knows what other Departments are using or based on bogus assumptions that the requirements are different, without exploring how the existing system can be configured to meet the new needs. Then there is the growing managerial hierarchy introducing levels of management that just aren't needed ( usually made up of colleagues from the leaders previous institution). There will undoubtedly be a strategic team who duplicate some of the functions of IT ( usually with less experience and knowledge) and promote these archaic textbook practices as something to aspire to. The staff in my Department are amazing, highly skilled and consummate professionals but have no voice in feeding into how change could be managed much better. There is a culture of fear as challenge to managerial ideas , however ridiculous, will end any prospect of promotion. When Professional Services were hived off this was probably one of the worst decisions to happen in the sector as they then started pursuing their own goals rather than those of supporting teaching and research.
I agree with the sentiment, and in particular that co-development of backend systems across the sector makes a lot more sense than every HEI re-purchasing essentially the software to manage the same processes. Also because a huge amount of academic and admin time goes into wrestling against dreadful, user-unfriendly, and incoherent software systems for which we unaccountably pay a lot of money. But this shake-up will itself in the short-term require a large investment in IT and software development teams, not academics. That may be the long-term goal, but as ever a large part of why we're stuck in current unworkable ruts is the precarious finances of the sector blocking investment in anything other than shiny new prestige buildings.