The UK’s higher education sector has been struggling for many years with an imbalance: under funding on the one hand and a huge surge in student enrolments on the other. Somewhere is a distant echo of all those “out, Maggie, out!’ cries of protest at the 1980s swathe of cuts.

At the same time as colleges, a mainstay of UK plc’s research and development base, have been trying to maintain the kind of infrastructure that will attract and retain not just undergraduates and postgraduates but researchers who may well come up with entrepreneurial breakthroughs in new technology areas, such as biotech. Now things may finally be changing, as a Labour government looking to a possible third term seems set to make it easier for the tertiary sector to raise student fees and attract more income.

Learning curve

This has not trickled down to campuses yet but there is a definite sense of new investment coming and some innovative use of IT as a welcome side effect. MIS UK spoke to three representative institutions to assess the situation. At one end of the scale there is a fairly dramatic picture of new growth at Doncaster College. In fact, ‘college’ is a bit of a misnomer: the aim of an ambitious refurbishment project is a so-called Education City, centred on a purpose-built campus built on the Waterfront city centre locale, offering educational opportunities to anyone over the age of 16.

The site will offer academic and vocational courses, from plumbing and hairdressing to postgraduate work, all integrated with local businesses, schools and training providers. The entire scheme, including new building and all the technology to support it, comes with a price tag of £72 million.

“This development signifies a step change for Doncaster College. The state-of-the-art system gives us the setup of a 21st century institution that offers the best possible environment for learning,” says Bill Webster, vice-principal of development. “Everybody that has seen the development to date has been hugely impressed – it will play a key role in helping us maintain our position as one of the region’s leading colleges.”

Knowledge exchange

The college aims to provide a digital knowledge exchange, which will “pioneer radical learning applications and link to a network of 200 learning gateways across the city”. Capacity to teach and support 38,000 students will be available, with September marking the official opening of doors for business. The college is expected to apply for full university status by 2010.

Technology is a big part of this story, says Graeme Tizard, director of IT for Doncaster College. IBM and Cisco equipment is being used, deployed and integrated by IT services group Computacenter. The system includes a high-speed converged network – expected to be 10 times faster than the college’s existing infrastructure – storage area networks, new servers, as well as CCTV and audio-visual devices. The latter, which include interactive whiteboards, will be used in the facility’s 200 classrooms, which will also be fitted with smartcard-enabled security and an electronic registration system.

“This infrastructure will help us deliver remote and online learning capabilities to thousands of new students every year,” says Tizard. “Multimedia content will be streamed via an internet protocol (IP) based network, which will carry 99 per cent of our voice and data traffic.” Use of IP, he adds, also has a number of advantages. “Operational efficiency was a key driver behind our technology choices. By deploying a standardised IP backbone we’re able to simplify IT management and reduce costs. We are also reusing our migration environment to create a disaster recovery provision.”

IP is an important component at a less dramatic but still leading-edge use of technology in education, at Swansea University in Wales. Based on a site at the city’s Morriston Hospital, this is a self-funded research and development department that offers Bachelors and Masters degrees as well as training for large parts of the NHS in Wales. The team has been working on health informatics projects including electronic health records, telemedicine and the application of web technologies for healthcare delivery.

Barry Goldberg, head of health informatics at the School of Health Science, has recently led a flexible working and multimedia portal comms solution, based on a converged network.

“We are a large department, 3,000 staff, almost a college in our own right,” he says. “We are all using mobile technology, either because of travelling, working in other organisations or at home. We also do a lot of data transfer.”

Virtually there

The team wanted a communications system that would work efficiently with its networked office environment to manage multimedia applications ranging from voice, Microsoft Office, video and audio-conferencing. In fact, the health informatics team works as far as possible as a virtual community, supported by desktop applications and web portals.

As Goldberg’s people also work frequently away from base, with all staff homeworking at least some of the time, remote access to work systems was essential. As part of a planned upgrade from the hospital’s legacy phone system, the University has shifted to an IP-based communications platform from supplier Mitel, offering enterprise-level IP PBX capability plus a range of applications such as unified messaging, auto-attendant, automatic call distribution (ACD) and a wireless gateway facility.

The new system now offers much higher bandwidth and connectivity than previously, allied to new functionality like the ability to use softphones on laptops and home PCs to call or join conferences from other locations. A new set of IP handsets for both home and office use completes the picture. “The team has increased its productivity and is saving costs through working more effectively and eliminating unnecessary travelling time,” adds Goldberg. Next steps will be to look at integrating voice recognition and possibly using the system to better route help desk calls.

Saving funds

UK colleges are not just concentrating on new infrastructure and communications: software and business applications are just as much a focus for cutting cost and raising efficiency. Take Roehampton University, an 8,000 strong institution based on four colleges in south and west London. The aim here was to continue to let these campuses operate autonomously but at the same time produce accurate, unified business and management information.

To achieve that goal the University has invested in applications such as student records, timetabling, finance and CRM software. But it is only recently it moved to adopt a more centralised reporting function, says its student information systems project manager, Marina Lim. “We wanted to support central control of the information but also to enable schools and departments to produce ad-hoc reports as required,” says Lim. She has taken on the Actuate reporting system.

The main users of the new system are the University’s 400 teaching and administration staff. Using this technology, an individual school in the University that wants to run a field trip can identify relevant students and send them an email without having to draw on central IT resources or time. So far the system has been available only via the internet. The next step will be extending the system to a Microsoft SharePoint portal so that students can use it to access their individual academic profile to see all the modules they have so far taken and their marks. “Students and staff can now better monitor progress,” says Lim.

BOXOUT: Classroom cost

The last 20 years have seen a dramatic rise in the number of people entering UK higher education. In 1990, 20 per cent of young people between 18 to 30 went on to further study after A-levels. In 2002 that was 43 per cent and the government wants it to go up to 50 per cent by 2010. Higher education costs taxpayers £7.5bn, with £400m of that coming from tuition fees contributed by students out of their own pockets. This academic year sees the first full year of ‘top-up fees,’ where up to £3,000 a year costs will be levied on students.

Backed with a 6 per cent rise in central government funding from 2005 to 2008, Labour says higher education will now have sufficient resources to meet demands.