Roundtable: how to control your IT expenses

The cost of ICT is ever-rising for universities. How can you keep a tight rein on your ICT expenses while still offering students the best digital experience? Keri Beckingham speaks to the experts to find out

The panel:

Andy Morton, systems and marketing manager, Restore Records Management

Matthew Silverman, director of market intelligence at Crestron

James Eaglesfield, head of IT governance and portfolio delivery at the University of Derby

Naomi Clews, independent procurement consultant who is based at Keele University’s ‘Smart Innovation Hub’

Pete Matheson, former owner of Tekkers IT Solutions

Q. What proportion of HE spending is on ICT, roughly?

Matthew Silverman: According to Educause, ICT spending is 3–5.5% of the overall institutional expenses.

James Eaglesfield: It’s difficult to be precise with a figure as there are many factors affecting how universities classify and report their spending on ICT. A recent report from Universities UK has stated that universities spent on average 9.2% of their income on libraries, museums and IT.

Q. What are some of the costliest mistakes HEIs make when buying ICT? What are the reasons for this?

Naomi Clews: One of the costliest mistakes is the silo department mentality of buying bespoke software and hardware that’s not mainstream, eg a cheap alternative to an established product such as an Apple iPad.

Many tech companies attempt to enter new markets with a ‘me too’ product but if they fail to penetrate the market in a significant way they often withdraw from the market and stop supporting the technology. This technology becomes redundant or, worse, open to viruses and security breaches.

If we consider the cost savings through adoption of an automated procurement process which starts with a requisition and ends with automatic payment of suppliers, this is great. But when considering automating standard processes many HEIs encounter a problem. They have a range of existing ICT software solutions for each individual part of the procurement process, bought at different times, that don’t talk to each other and are costly to integrate.

This means the ICT either becomes redundant, requires significant investment or the HEI does nothing and fails to achieve best value.

Andy Morton: Basing their decisions primarily on cost. It’s completely understandable that budget constraints have an impact in the decision-making process but it’s always worth thinking of value for money rather than lowest cost. You want systems and technology that offer the best returns for the budget you have available.

Pete Matheson: Buying cheap and buying twice. Or buying the wrong thing because they’re not aware of what’s available on the market, and don’t have enough exposure to what is the latest technology.

MS: Short-term thinking, and reactive solutions cost HE a lot in terms of efficiency and total cost of ownership. Often solutions are purchased to meet an immediate need without thinking about the long-term cost. For instance, they do not consider how much support will be needed during and after installation, eg how many staff are required to support the solution or what the long-term maintenance and replacement costs are. Or they don’t consider how the preferred solution integrates into the overall architecture, eg how the new solution interacts with existing IT systems.

Time restraints and lack of planning are often the most important factor in these costly mistakes. Suddenly the institutional priorities change, or a new need arises, and the AV/IT department is expected to respond immediately rather than comprehensively. However, we see that this is changing. Recently, many institutions are putting architectural review boards in place to prevent snap decisions that end up costing a lot more in the long term.

JE: I think the same mistakes occur whether ICT is involved or not. Costly mistakes are made where proper and timely research, scoping and negotiations haven’t taken place. There are many reasons for this in my experience, including being influenced by others in the sector, believing everything the supplier promises and not fully understanding the contract that is being entered into.

Further reading

A look into how the EDUCAUSE Core Data Service (CDS) can inform institutional planning with benchmarks of IT financials, staffing and services:

Universities UK – Higher Education in Facts and Figures 2019:

Yavapai College:

Q. In your experience, how much should HEIs outsource? Why is this important?

AM: The simple answer is outsource as much as required with the resource available. Look at outsourcing as a support mechanism for your existing teams. Outsourcing can help HEIs achieve maximum efficiency by saving companies time, money and space. Time that can be used to focus on other areas, cutting the cost of additional resource and saving space which would be needed to host systems/infrastructure on site. It’s also important to consider the experience and expertise that outsourcing to specialists can bring to the HEIs. One such area is compliance, especially when dealing with important and confidential data.

NC: The biggest issue with outsourcing is the loss of internal expertise or intellectual property (IP) to a third party. Seventy-seven per cent of councils have, or are planning to bring, outsourced services back in house to cut costs and improve quality.

The golden rule of outsourcing is to never outsource your core activities. For HEIs core activities are research, education and knowledge. HEIs should therefore complete extensive due diligence on their cloud-hosting and software providers to ensure IP is protected from unauthorised data sharing and external hacks.

It makes sense that HEIs would want to retain an internal ICT department for the purposes of purchasing decisions, ongoing security, maintenance and the management of existing suppliers.
It’s also extremely important that updates and patches are released and passwords changed frequently to protect data. Insourcing also provides opportunities to strengthen local supply chains and boost local economies by working with more small- and medium-sized businesses, potentially providing more local jobs for graduates.

The only logical reason to outsource anything is to save money. However, the costs associated with the Transfer of Undertakings Protection of Employment (TUPE) can often be missed when writing a business case. For example, the costs associated with public sector pensions can often be difficult for the private sector to absorb. Over time the costs may increase over and above the original price tendered. This often results in clawbacks through cutting corners which leads to risk and an increase in complaints.

PM: It makes financial sense to employ – but the importance here is to pay for expertise. If you are paying a junior IT engineer you will receive junior IT services. Consider outsourcing at least some of your IT needs as you will get exposure (through the outsource provider) of technologies that you typically would not see.

MS: This depends on the institution and institution’s culture. Certain items are becoming commonplace, for instance moving from on-premise server infrastructure to cloud-hosted services as it reduces infrastructure, staffing and facilities costs. HE is a lot more dependent on real-time service and maintenance than typical enterprise customers which can often make it difficult to staff out service and support. Often the installation, development or other non-end-customer-facing parts can be outsourced, as these components do not directly affect the delivery of the day-to-day core mission.

JE: I don’t think you are able to put a figure on how much should be outsourced. HEIs should look to use outsourcing as one of the many ways they can achieve the objectives set out in their overall corporate strategy.

“Review, review, review. Are people using the systems and services you provide? Can alternatives be used? What options is the supplier willing to offer?” James Eaglesfield

Q. Which bits of tech do you think pay for themselves fastest?

MS: Any technology that enhances the institutional mission will provide a return on investment (ROI). In HE, ROI isn’t all measured monetarily but is often captured in how it enhances the teaching and learning experience or fosters research. In general, feedback will come from technology that is reliable (less downtime), user-friendly (increased efficiency), attracts students and retain instructors by improving the curriculum and teaching and learning experience. Monetary return comes from creating better automation and reducing the need for staffing.

PM: Difficult to answer – but the better the equipment, the faster work is produced. Speed of internet can be a massive factor depending on the type of work being carried out. Technology such as solar and battery storage, in terms of paying for themselves, would be a fantastic option.

JE: Services such as Office365, which take away the hassles from operating email systems and provide storage and collaboration tools you can work with students, colleagues and suppliers on.

Q.What is the best approach to cutting existing ICT expenses?

AM: As mentioned earlier it’s about value for money. Review the ICT expenses you have in place and ask yourself whether you are getting the maximum return. If the answer is no, then that’s a great starting place to look at cutting expenses.

PM: I would argue it’s difficult to cut ICT expenses, particularly in the realms of IT security, as you don’t want to put yourself, the students and the HE facility at risk. Look at where your IT expenditure goes and speak to an external IT consultant as to whether the expense is necessary, or whether there maybe another, more affordable option. Also check what is available to you free of charge or significantly discounted through the likes of Google/Microsoft.

MS: The best way to cut existing ICT expenses is by focusing on the core mission of the university and the department that is using the particular technology. Because of the general academic and exploratory nature of HE, technology often ‘scope creeps’, which means that there are often changes or uncontrolled growth in the original scope of the project after the project has started. This happens most often because a project is not properly defined, documented, or controlled. Technology managers should routinely ask themselves “Is adding this technology furthering our mission?” Additionally, HE often gets very set in a particular way of doing business, while technology managers should be open to exploring new options that can provide cost savings through automation or reassessment of requirements.

JE: Review, review, review. Are people using the systems and services you provide? Can alternatives be used? What options is the supplier willing to offer?

NC: Whilst cloud software appears to be the convenient and cost-effective solution to cutting existing ICT expenses, the impact energy demand from data centres is having on the planet may negate those short-term savings.

The emergence of Covid-19 and pending self-isolation of the population has brought home the importance of working from home and accessing data remotely. But as the internet and the technology industry continues to grow, so too does its energy needs.

It’s reported the global carbon footprint of the ICT industry accounts for more than 2% of global carbon emissions, comparable to the aviation industry’s fuel emissions, pre-2020.

One of three tech giants, Amazon Web Services, has pledged to be carbon-neutral by 2040 but, according to Greenpeace, Amazon currently gets the majority of its energy from coal and nuclear sources. The BBC reported in January 2020 Amazon had threatened to fire employees for speaking out on environmental issues. YPO, a group purchasing organisation, awarded a £400m contract to Amazon Business Services in 2019 to supply universities, multi-academy trusts and local authorities.

Circular procurement aims to avoid negative environmental impacts across the whole procurement life cycle. Buyers must look beyond recycling their old laptops and put pressure on tech companies to be greener, especially when it comes to electricity to power data centres.

Circular procurement provides a more holistic consideration of environmental impacts and waste creation across the whole life cycle of ICT purchases often overlooked by the OJEU (Official Journal of the European Union) process, and an obsession with lowest price and budget cuts. Taking into account life-cycle costs and assessing the carbon footprints of companies awarded millions of pounds in government contracts makes more economic and environmental sense, especially for universities who have innovation and sustainability at their core.

Q. Do you have any examples of HEIs that have been able to cut ICT expenses while still offering students the best digital experience possible? How did they do this?

MS: Established in 1965, Yavapai College is a community college based in Prescott, Arizona.
The school has seen tremendous growth over the past 20 years, expanding to six campuses. Since standardising on Crestron solutions, Yavapai College has seen a significant decrease in help desk calls, systems downtime, and systems maintenance campus wide.

JE: I’ve recently engaged with Jisc on a financial X-ray exercise. This provides detailed benchmarking of IT spend against peers, comparing and analysing the full cost of our IT services and is allowing us to make efficiencies and cost-savings.

“Technology managers should routinely ask themselves, ‘Is adding this technology furthering our mission?’” Matthew Silverman

Q. Which current ICT trends or fads should HEIs be sceptical about rushing to buy just yet?

PM: There is lots of noise around AI/AR and other hotly used terms. Whilst they do have plenty of merit and you can do some incredible things with them, they’re also a very quick way to waste money if you don’t understand what you’re paying for.

JE: This is a case of not rushing to buy or implement technologies. Understand what you need to achieve, how you want to achieve it and adopt the right technologies for you and this goal.

Case study: University of Huddersfield

LapSafe have worked with several HEIs

Lapsafe has supported several HEIs with their ICT requirements. For example, when Wayne Winterbottom, IT support manager for computing and library services at The University of Huddersfield sought to introduce a new service which would see the automation of a laptop loaning system for the students, he spoke to colleagues who had experience of the LapSafe Diplomat LMS being installed in other universities around the UK.

Commenting on the project, Wayne said: “The installation guys were friendly, professional and helpful, they talk you through the procedure and the unit was up and running quickly. The units were set-up and programmed within a couple of hours and I think a lot of that is down to the preparation of the LapSafe team before they arrived. They sorted all our barcode information before arriving so they had the system all pre-programmed; there seems to be a lot of hard work that goes into making it such a smooth transition on the day.”

The university decided to go ahead and do a soft launch without any advertising, and within a week all the laptops had been loaned out. Wayne and his team have since looked at the statistics available and discovered that in the first month there had been around 600 loans.

Wayne added: “One of the good things with the new service is the improvement on customer satisfaction. Students are now getting more time to talk about real issues with the library staff at the front desk rather than just queuing to get a laptop. The desk queues are smaller and they feel they are getting better attention.

“The LapSafe Diplomat LMS has certainly improved the customer experience here at Huddersfield and long may it continue.”

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