Comment: Universities should clue up on cloud computing

Higher education (HE) providers that embrace cloud computing have an opportunity to access technology that can enhance students’ learning experience, better support academics with their research and teaching, and boost collaboration. Institutions must not allow the challenge of delivering a major transformational project, or exaggerated fears in relation to data, put them off cloud-based infrastructure, software and services, but seize the opportunity to gain a competitive advantage.

Organisations are sometimes put off migrating to the cloud because of its perceived risks, says McIntosh of Pinsent Masons. Picture: Contributed

HE organisations are data heavy; they hold significant data on students and staff and increasingly support “big data” research. The day-to-day operation of courses is also ever more dependent on technology such as lecture capture and digital learning.

The cloud can offer secure data storage and cost-effective flexibility for institutions to quickly scale up as demand grows. Cloud computing can improve the efficiency of back office operations, such as software as-a-service HR, finance and payroll.

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This also opens up possibilities for effective collaboration, removing physical limits to accessing data and allowing the flexibility to pair up with other organisations to cooperate on research and development.

However, organisations are sometimes put off the idea of migrating to the cloud because of its perceived risks, possibly attributed to data breaches experienced by other organisations. The thinking therefore is that all local data storage options provide greater security in every case – but this is a myth that needs to be debunked.

Operating decentralised systems and legacy technology can bring its own data protection issues, however, contracting with major cloud providers can mean assurance that data is stored in adherence to industry standards on legislative requirements, that security threats are monitored, and that incident response mechanisms are in place and ready to act in the event of a breach. It is important that institutions understand the operational model and weigh the options case by case.

In addition to systems providing for back office functionality, institutions also operate systems specific to the HE sector, such as student records management, alumni relations and library services. Traditionally, these systems have been operated from infrastructure located on campus, and the software has often been bespoke, built in-house or not interconnected. Where institutions are operating these on-premise solutions, the complexity of migrating these legacy systems and data to the cloud can often be a barrier to cloud adoption.

Government statistics on its G-Cloud framework do indicate slower adoption of cloud by the wider public sector, including the HE sector, than central government. The framework allows UK public sector organisations to buy cloud-based products and services from pre-approved suppliers. Statistics show more than £4 billion of sales have been recorded through the G-Cloud in the last seven years. However, 81 per cent of the total value is be attributed to central government procurements, with all other public bodies collectively responsible for the remaining 19 per cent.

One of the biggest barriers to the adoption of cloud by HE providers is likely a prevailing risk-averse culture. There are challenges to exiting existing IT contracts and migrating to the cloud, as well as legal and commercial issues to consider. However, it is important that these do not act as a blocker to cloud adoption and a Pinsent Masons’ White Paper published this month, Technology Revolution in the HE Sector, will look at this in detail.

Institutions need cloud-savvy IT experts to change perceptions and explain the myths that are often perpetuated. These experts can then help develop a cloud strategy that best meets the institution’s needs and enables it to keep pace with competition, meet the growing technology demands of students and academics, and open up new opportunities.

- Joanne McIntosh is an expert in technology in the higher education sector at Pinsent Masons