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IT consumerisation at universities: why IT efficiency is key in higher education

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/niroworld)

With a quarter of the worldwide population currently in lockdown, more and more of our lives are being transferred online. University classes are no different, and with thousands of students accessing resources at the same time, maintaining IT efficiency is more important for institutions than ever before.

As a result, the complexity of higher education IT infrastructure is being brought into sharp focus, as students recognise the huge impact that such complexity has on user experience, and even their ability to fulfil the requirements of their education programmes.

The combination of on-campus and remote students and staff, using both university and user-owned devices means performance issues and inefficiencies can present themselves easily, and are challenging to monitor and resolve. The ramifications of such elaborate IT environments can be severe. For example, threat detection becomes extremely difficult and opens up university institutions to cyberattacks. Such attacks can result in privacy breaches, inconvenient system downtime and ultimately, can have a negative impact on reputation and revenue. Competition is fierce between institutions hoping to attract new students and many are caught between maintaining their prestigious and historical reputations, whilst also striving to become innovative and modern.

Professionals heading up IT teams at universities must streamline and modernise their systems and implement the latest-generation IT technology to improve their IT performance, or risk losing students.

University digital transformation: a fractured approach

The widespread consumerisation of IT has led to an increased focus on user experience and has affected organisations of all kinds in every sector. In the UK, most students pay significant tuition fees to attend higher education institutions and as a result, students expect a high standard of performance from IT systems in order to easily access virtual learning environments, online learning resources, submit coursework and manage important documents, as well as liaising with professors and peers. Downtime is unacceptable and could have a detrimental impact on a student’s progress. During the current global pandemic, the potential impact is worsened, as classes move online and universities figure out what virtual examinations look like.

Universities have already taken steps towards digital transformation; however, this shift remains inconsistent and fractious. Unfortunately, most universities still operate in siloes – mainly due to a lack of communication between departments, or an ad hoc approach to digital transformation. Nowhere is this more prevalent than between IT and the rest of the institution, and this can lead to miscommunications between the needs of staff and how IT can facilitate those needs.

Universities can be even more fractured than average organisations, with different departments within schools having their own rules for essay submission, their own admin teams, and separate login systems for students. This leads to headaches and confusion for students and faculty members, and ultimately impacts the effectiveness of the IT function.

Aside from cases where requests are lost or delayed, different departments within universities are often running different hardware and software, sometimes running on different versions. This makes interoperability unnecessarily difficult and can hamper cybersecurity operations. If the outcome of this is poor or inconsistent patch management, the institution will be much more vulnerable to cyberattack – from both the inside and outside the network.

Patching pain

Manual patching can become tedious for organisations of all sizes. The huge volume of patches combined with the complexity and inconsistency of university IT infrastructure certainly presents a challenge. Having the necessary technology in place is key to ensuring that patch management does not become unmanageable. Over 22,000 new vulnerabilities were disclosed in 2019, with large vendors such as Adobe and Microsoft adding updates consistently every month.  This can lead to patching fatigue, whereby organisations are simply overwhelmed by the amount of consistent patching they need to do to stay secure.

Furthermore, many organisations fall into the trap of forgetting that data hosted on virtual servers and in the cloud must be patched, as well as physical devices. By automating the patching process, organisations can be certain that the job is done correctly and consistently, whilst IT can focus their attention on more pressing tasks. Automating patching management would ensure that systems are continuously scanned for missing patches and automated solutions deploy patches where necessary, without the need for human intervention. Real-time reporting allows IT teams to remain informed on patching processes and allows them to easily identify priority patches. 

Unfortunately, patching alone is simply not enough to protect institutions, and therefore a layered approach is vital for enabling holistic security measures. Additional tools including vulnerability management, privilege access management, application whitelisting, and ensuring that regular system back-ups are implemented are essential. Universities must ensure that they prioritise unified IT operations and invest in solutions that are compatible as a whole, and work together to provide a full picture of the risk environment. A unified approach to IT will help interdepartmental cooperation and ultimately, break down siloes.

Modernising IT whilst maintaining tradition

Tradition is an important part of the appeal of UK universities. Educational institutions are often celebrated due to their history, with the UK being home to many of the oldest universities in the world. This means that many older universities have had to negotiate modernisation of IT systems, whilst trying to maintain tradition and the characteristics that draw many students to apply. For older universities, it can be much more difficult and expensive to unify IT operations compared to more contemporary institutions.

One such university that has managed to balance tradition with innovation is Cambridge. Despite being 809 years old, the University of Cambridge has undergone the radical digital transformation of its service desk operations by adopting the premise of ‘Unified IT’, whilst maintaining the historical features that bolster its prestigious reputation.

In the past, Cambridge had user accounts siloed across different services and managed by different desks. The IT team now provides cohesive IT support to the 20,000 end users, with expansion capabilities to 65,000 accounts with a unified service management solution. Three separate service desks were merged into one and requests can now be passed around the organisation quicker than ever before. This has almost eliminated the threat of things getting lost or falling through the cracks. Moving to a cloud-based solution has assisted IT and helps to automate processes across the Estates, HR, Finance and Operations departments. Overall, adopting Unified IT has given both students and staff a better experience as they can get access to essential IT services when they most need them.

Unified IT for student satisfaction

Adopting Unified IT and breaking down the siloes that have long existed can seem like a daunting task. However, if a university as established and complex as Cambridge can integrate its IT operations, no university is too large to adopt this approach.

An example of a more modern institution that has undergone a similar transformation is the University of Glasgow, which has implemented an ambitious centralisation project that now sees four colleges (Arts, MVLS (Medical, Veterinary and Life Sciences), Science and Engineering, and Social Sciences) and operational services now unified under one central service desk. This desk is responsible for over 30,000 accounts.

A Unified IT approach is the best option for universities that are looking to modernise their IT operations and consolidate existing resources. By streamlining IT operations, institutions can ensure that a smoother user experience will empower students to succeed in their education, as well as protecting reputation and revenue.

Andrew Brickell, Area Director - UK, Ireland and Middle East, Ivanti