Mark Lee, Key Accounts – Public Sector, Commvault, discusses the importance of carrying out a first-class data management strategy during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond
The continuing pandemic is putting many businesses, including those in the public sector, in a very difficult position. Universities, in particular, are facing immense pressures from students, parents, and even their own staff, as they attempt to navigate this situation as best they can. For university IT departments, there have been multiple plates to spin since the enforced lockdown measures. They have had to successfully enable a mass work-from-home and remote study strategy, all while keeping operations running safely, securely, and smoothly.
The technology underpinning universities could sometimes be considered very traditional. Once they have a reliable infrastructure in place, it can get overlooked when thinking of ways to modernise. After all, if it ain’t broke, why fix it – right? Unfortunately, COVID-19 has been the event that has made everyone sit up and pay attention to their systems. It’s impossible to predict right now if universities will ever function the same way again. With Cambridge University announcing no in-person lectures until September 2021 at the earliest, universities across the country will similarly be working out how to keep students and staff safe while still providing the expected university experience.
Recent changes mean failing to adapt is risky
The biggest problem for universities now is the loss of revenue. Many students may now choose to defer for a year, either because they are concerned about the virus or because they don’t want to miss out on the traditional student experience – or both! There will also likely be far less overseas students travelling to the UK in September to start their courses due to health concerns as well as international travel restrictions. Fewer students attending university in 2020/21 means a huge drop in revenue across the sector. With the loss of tuition fees alone predicted to cost British universities around £2.5 billion, senior leadership teams need to establish what will make students choose them over their competitors.
Vice-Chancellors, lecturers and other university staff have talked about making a change to their IT infrastructure for years – COVID-19 has made this become a necessity. Most, if not all, universities have had online teaching systems in place for years, where students can upload work, collaborate with their peers, and receive resources from their lecturers. Now that ‘learning from home’ is widespread, and will likely continue to some extent next year, IT departments need to consider how they can boost the measures they already have in place to make studying more effective for students.
Provisioning the best online education service will make one university stand out from the rest, and utilising data successfully is one of the most important factors for this. As students rely more on online classes and resources, universities need to consider what they can offer. For example, currently, if a student loses the data file of their dissertation a week before it’s due, the university wouldn’t take any responsibility because it would likely be on the student’s own device. One possibility of moving forwards is for universities to hold more responsibility for students’ work, which would be feasible with a shared working space. It may seem like more hassle, but with the right data management in place, the university would have the backups it needed to get students back on track immediately.
So, with thoughts like this in mind, what should universities be focusing on to mitigate the risks that the pandemic has created?
Three key areas to prioritise
Senior leadership teams need to act fast. The summer is almost here and students will be making the all-important decision of whether to go to university in September or hold off for a year, so it’s vital that updated IT measures are put into motion sooner rather than later to help convince students that they should still attend this year. There are three key areas that universities need to focus on.
Data management needs to be flexible. This is arguably the most important point, as so much about the future is unknown. Universities currently don’t know how many students they will have in a few months’ time, therefore their financial situation is also unknown. They will typically have the same number of students each year, give or take, but this time they can’t predict what’s going to happen.
Being able to arrange flexible contracts with third-party data management providers is an important first step, as it can provide some breathing space to allow universities to assess their financial situation further down the line. It also means that universities will be better placed to scale their data management up or down as required, depending on their needs as the months go on. It’s important to note that this shouldn’t feel like putting off a decision about data management, but rather making smart decisions in the short term while the situation is uncertain.
Universities are, in most cases, very old institutions, with well-established processes in place. They are also likely to have ageing IT systems in place that might now be a decade or elder. Right now is not necessarily the time to worry about replacing all of this hardware, given how tight budgets are across the sector, so it’s more important to adapt to make the best use of existing assets.
The way students choose universities will change – technical support and other IT aspects will likely be a bigger part of a student’s decision than ever before. It will be crucial to have the right services in place, not just to provide students access to lectures, but also retrospective access, as well as optimal sharing spaces for collaboration. Additional services such as protection for students’ laptops could be considered, as this could not only encourage students to choose a particular university, but it would help reduce the strain on existing university-owned computers if students were more confident to use their own for studying.
For students and staff, being able to access the systems a university has in place to assist with learning is crucial, and any downtime will disrupt thousands of users. Being able to join a virtual lecture is one thing – especially as everyone is more experienced with virtual calls than they were a few months ago – but there are also resources and collaboration that need to still continue effectively. Students and staff will all need access to a device that can in turn access the university system, and security also needs to be a top priority. With more data being collected, stored and accessed within universities, keeping it all safe from both internal and external threats is critical.
As summer edges closer every day, September is no longer on the horizon but rather just around the corner. For universities to ride the wave of COVID-19 and bring in enough revenue in the next academic year, having a data management strategy that is able to adapt to their needs and provide the support and protection that is crucial at the moment might just be what saves them.