Financial challenges, digital opportunities

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In the UK this month university research centres have come under fire for their connections with Libya – but speaking at the JISC annual conference, a senior university leader said that values are key.

Eric Thomas, vice chancellor of the University of Bristol, highlighted how the recent scrutiny of university links with the Libyan government could be seen as an example of how the public consider education to operate within a different value system from other organisations in society.

He said: ‘It’s essential that we see ourselves as educational institutions and that we retain our values. People expect higher education to have a different value set.  It’s really important that we maintain that.’

Thomas’ talk opened the JISC11 conference in Liverpool on 15 March 2011, which was attended by nearly 700 delegates from across further and higher education in the UK, China, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, South Korea, Spain and Sweden.

The talk introduced a day of advice, guidance and future-gazing on the theme of ‘financial challenges, digital opportunities’ to help colleges and universities reduce costs and improve their efficiency.

As competition for grant funding increases within the UK and internationally, Thomas highlighted the UK economic and social research council’s recent decision to concentrate their PhD studentships in a limited number of favoured universities as indicative of the UK education’s increasingly specialised research industry.

The conference showcased a number of ways in which technology can help cut costs through money-saving widgets, greener ICT solutions and more efficient working through international grid services. It also looked at by providing managers with better data about, for example, how useful their journal subscriptions are to researchers on the ground through tools like Raptor, which will be available for download in April 2011.

Jeremy Sharp, head of strategic technologies at JANET(UK), chaired a session on how cloud technologies have the potential to transform research, teaching and technology transfer. Loughborough University had looked at Hewlett Packard’s consolidation project which created a private cloud and decided to do something similar on a much smaller scale.  Through this, the university reduced its number of physical data centres from 85 to six, applications from 6000 to 3000. It had to invest $100m to create a network the equivalent of JANET(UK) but achieved savings of $1 billion per annum in revenue.  But the main point of the session looked at how researching in the cloud wasn’t just about cost savings but also carbon reduction commitment and real estate becoming more valuable for other activities.

Delegates were also switched on to securing funding by using technology to better manage their research data, information and grant applications. Simon Tanner, director of Kings College London’s Digital Consultancy Service, advised that developing a reputation and maximising publicity when times are good can reap benefits because it makes funders more aware of your work when you need further funding.

Evaluating the effectiveness of research is a key part of funders’ decisions and, by implication, can support efforts to place resources where they are needed in house.  Philip Purnell of Thomson Reuters identified seven factors that can be used to evaluate research: peer evaluation, productivity, grant awards, prestige of those awards, innovation (for example how many patents a researcher has filed), academic reputation and teaching, international mix of journal entries, and citation analysis. Philip shared the thinking behind the influential Web of Science from Thomson Reuters, which uses the latter measure. He argued that the citation data assists in helping universities and other research organisations to answer questions like ‘how competitive is our research compared to our peers?’ and ‘which are the university’s centres of excellence?’.

But Neil Chue-Hong, director of the Software Sustainability Institute, identified the limitations of bibliometrics in measuring how innovative researchers are.   ‘The two problems I see are that you want to be able to predict the likely impact of innovation ahead of time – which is very difficult -  and you also want to understand their effects at a more micro level than at a university level.’  So when it came to prioritising funds, a repeated theme was that a strong value proposition can help steer organisations through difficult times, especially if this is established early in the planning process of an individual project. An institution’s commitment to being innovative, for example, might then drive resource decisions ahead of other concerns.

Speaking ahead of the conference, Thomas of the University of Bristol identified that the increasing marketisation of UK higher education would mean that universities have to more accurately identify what it is that they are offering in order to remain competitive. Where there are digital opportunities, then, these are usefully driven as much by an organisation and a researcher’s core values, than by concern for the bottom line.