Roundtable: saving on ICT expenses – Antony Mellor

From SaaS to scalability, how can universities keep a tight rein on their ICT expenses, while still offering students the best digital experience available? Steve Wright quizzes six experts

Antony Mellor is head of higher and further education at Stone Group

Q. Let’s look at the ICT landscape first. What developments and trends should universities be aware of over the coming few years, and how should they make
sure they are responding to them?

The rise of 5G networks will drive an improvement in application performance, and lead to the creation of new applications that will benefit from the significantly higher speed, latency and capacity that 5G brings. For the higher education sector, this will mean a faster, better user experience, and further engagement with the ‘internet of things’ (IoT), leading to more and more connected devices.

Within the next couple of years, the clamour for IoT will lead to adaptations in teaching style, as students begin to rely ever more upon connected devices such as tablets, smart watches and AI assistants.

One result of this will be an increase in data and, in turn, the need for more scalable storage, which lends itself to more utilisation of cloud-based storage solutions. As storage requirements grow, this can be flexibly increased, without necessarily having to worry about additional infrastructure costs.

Q. How important – and how feasible – is it for universities to have a fully scalable ICT framework, capable of growing in capacity to suit demand either over time and/or for
specific projects?

Device as a Service (DaaS) and other IT subscription methods are an easy way to scale up to suit demand over time, or for specific projects, and to allow universities to better manage budgets.

Q. Can you recommend some useful cost-saving solutions?

BYOD has been a buzz acronym for quite some time, and in the ideal world it is a way to save on device cost.

The pitfalls here, however, can quickly outweigh the benefits. What happens if the device fails or is forgotten? What about application incompatibility? 

A laptop loan programme can remedy this issue, and has already been implemented in many universities. Students can access a locker, using their ID card, and borrow a laptop for a period of time. To keep the cost down even further, these devices could be Chromebooks – inexpensive, secure, and extremely mobile laptop devices.

Q. Are there ways in which ICT provision can be monetised (eg offering students different internet capacity/bandwidth at different tariffs)?

I think monetising ICT provision could lead to issues. In any university, you will have students from differing backgrounds – you couldn’t have a situation where students from a more privileged background get access to better provision. Each student is, in effect, a paying customer – and expects a high level of provision, especially when it comes to ICT.

Q. How should universities balance budgets while also future-proofing their ICT? Does more durable always mean more expensive?

Future-proofing as far as is economically viable is the key. Underspend and you risk problems, as devices struggle to cope with newer apps.

Conversely, you can over-spec the device and pay extra now, with no guarantee that the device will ever be used to its full capability. A mixed approach to devices is best.

Q. Should ICT systems be updated on a piecemeal basis, or via more radical overhauls every few years?

A planned, phased programme of maintenance and improvement is preferable to ‘tearing up the plan’ and restarting every few years. What if, in a few years, the budget isn’t available? By planning your way forward, and budget-allowing, you should be able to maintain ‘good’. While this may mean your provision is not always ‘perfect’, it will ensure that you’re able to move in line with technological changes, respond to new challenges, and to maintain a level of progression.