Valley chips away at cash

October 23, 1998

They use them in Russian oilfields. They use them on a United States Navy cruiser. Now 28,000 staff and students are using them at Thames Valley University.

If Slough and Ealing were surrounded by featureless ocean or tundra, smartcards containing microchips would probably have replaced cash long ago. But it is hard to phase out coins and notes in the Home Counties.

The Thames Valley card, now in official use after a one-year trial, is primarily a key that opens doors and gates. Do not leave for the learning resource centre without one.

As an electronic purse, it can be charged and recharged up to a value of Pounds 50 from machines which take banknotes. The money can be spent on computer printing or floppy discs. ICL, the company which installed the system, is keen to increase the card's "perceived value" by getting it accepted at local shops.

Two things are slowing the adoption of smartcards by universities. One is the lack of standards: there is a physical standard for smartcards but several rival software technologies. Early adopters might have to switch if the government chose a different system for national learning accounts.

The other problem is that smartcards bring no single overwhelming benefit. The investment case is usually based on many small benefits and savings.

Thames Valley's combined university and union card is one fewer item for students to carry. It simplifies opening a university email account. Improved security means some buildings may stay open later.

The cards also provide a way for a university, or partner organisations such as banks, to borrow money from the students. At Florida State University the "float" of unspent money on smartcards is worth many millions of dollars. As joint issuer of the cards, Suntrust Bank gets a flow of new customers and a handy sum to invest.

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