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Report: UK colleges face testing times with ageing kit, iffy connectivity, and some IT staff supporting 1k+ users

Cloud-first but no 'resilient internet connection'? Oh dear

New research into the IT infrastructure of the UK's higher education sectors does not make happy reading for those wishing to cure all ills with the sticking plaster of "digital".

The infrastructure reviews – published by Jisc (historically the Joint Information Systems Committee) today – took place between 2016 and 2020 and covered 118 institutions, including 59 Further Education (FE) colleges (or just under 28 per cent of the UK's total, according to the report).

The most worrying finding was, unsurprisingly, around funding challenges. A lack of capital investment meant that creaking infrastructure was being kept going past the point where it might be considered a little out of date.

A withdrawal of vendor support for obsolete gear created what Jisc delicately called "a difficult cyber-security posture". The research went on to note that most colleges found managing the upgrade cycle of both end user kit and infrastructure "very difficult".

Robin Ghurbhurun, Jisc's managing director of further education and skills, commented: "The government's announcement on 19 August that it had released £200m for 180 colleges to spend on physical and digital infrastructure is welcome, but is it not enough to solve the underlying digital challenges caused by years of under-investment."

Indeed, Jisc found that historic budget squeezes had seen IT support teams in FE reduced, with the average support-staff-to-user ratio standing at an unhealthy 814:1 (2,767:1 was the worst) thanks mainly to simple attrition and cost-saving over the years. It also noted that training was not always up to snuff.

More serious was the finding that, among problems with networking, "only a small minority of FE colleges have a resilient internet connection".

While this may have been annoying in the old, on-premises world, Jisc noted that most colleges had shifted services such as email and calendaring into the cloud, where decent connectivity is a must.

Microsoft 365 was the tool of choice for many, with a few going down the G Suite path or running an on-premises Exchange Server. Novell Groupwise had "been all but eliminated".

Funding woes continued into servers and storage provision, and the authors of the research remarked that for most colleges, "the growth in the use of SaaS has not been matched by the use of IaaS," before recommending a hybrid model.

Mobile Device Management (MDM) came in for criticism and while the majority of colleges were able to keep Microsoft's code patched and up to date, third-party software management was "often not as rigorously enforced".

There was a glimmer of light, however. Those institutions taking IT seriously enough to have a CIO, CTO, or similar senior role were better placed to make the right spending decisions at the right time over the entire organisation, according to the report.

Researchers noted that the best performing IT teams were led by bosses who both understood the business (the college) and had a decent experience base. "Staff turnover may be lower," it said, "where staff are supported and developed into their roles."

Not unlike the IT industry at large... ®

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