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Why the HE sector must embrace cloud computing

ANALYSIS: Higher education providers that embrace cloud computing have an opportunity to access technology that can enhance students' learning experience, better support academics with their research, and make collaboration easier.11 Mar 2019

Institutions must not allow the challenge of delivering a major transformational project, or exaggerated fears in relation to data, to put them off cloud-based infrastructure, software and services. They should seize the opportunity to gain the competitive advantage that moving to the cloud offers.

The positive case for change

For higher education providers, moving their data and IT estate to the cloud is fast becoming a necessity as the demands of operating successfully in the digital world continue to grow.

Higher education providers are data-heavy organisations. Not only do they hold a significant volume of data on their students and staff, they are increasingly supporting 'big data' research projects in partnership with other institutions and industry. In addition, the day-to-day operation of courses is becoming increasingly dependent on technology, as lecture capture solutions and online distance learning become more popular, for example.

The cloud offers a secure place to store data and cost-effective flexibility for institutions to quickly scale-up their provision of data storage to meet growing demand.

In addition, cloud computing offers access to the latest software and services that allows researchers to 'slice and dice' data and analyse their work as they seek a breakthrough in the drugs discovery process or development of new artificial intelligence (AI) solutions, or whatever project they are engaged in.

Operating with data and software in the cloud also opens up possibilities for more effective collaboration. It removes physical limits on how data can be accessed and allows institutions to use flexible solutions to pair up with other higher education providers and businesses based anywhere in the world to cooperate on research and development.

Factors holding back adoption

Organisations are sometimes put off the idea of migrating to the cloud because of their perception over the risks this presents to their data. 

This perception might be attributed to the increasingly frequent reports of cyber attacks and data breaches experienced by other organisations – some of the largest businesses in the world have not been immune to the risks.

The thinking therefore is that all local data storage options provide greater security. It is a myth that needs debunked.

Operating decentralised systems and legacy technology brings its own issues relating to the protection of data. Contracting with major cloud providers offers the assurance that data is being stored in adherence to industry standards on legislative requirements, that security threats are being constantly monitored for, and that incident response mechanisms are in place and ready to be acted on in the event of a breach. In short, the data stored in the cloud is often likely to be more secure.

The complexity of the existing IT infrastructures of higher education providers can also hinder their adoption of cloud-based solutions.

Like other organisations, higher education providers have systems providing for back-office functionality in areas such as HR and payroll. They also, though, operate systems specific to the HE sector, such as in relation to student records management, alumni relations and library services. Traditionally, these systems have been operated from infrastructure located on-campus, and the software and services supplied have often been bespoke and not interconnected. Where institutions are operating these on-premise solutions, the complexity of migrating these legacy IT systems and data to the cloud can often be perceived as a barrier to cloud adoption.

The slow adoption of cloud-based services by higher education providers is consistent with adoption across the wider public sector. This is reflected in statistics relating to sales on the 'G-Cloud' framework, accurate up to 31 December 2018.

The 'G-Cloud' is a framework pioneered by the UK government that has allowed UK public sector organisations to buy cloud-based products and services from pre-approved suppliers. The framework has been running since 2012 through various iterations

According to government statistics published in January 2019, more than £4 billion of sales have been recorded through the G-Cloud over the past seven years. However, 81% of the total value of those sales can be attributed to central government procurements, with all other public bodies collectively responsible for the remaining 19%.

Culture change needed

One of the biggest barriers to the adoption of cloud-based solutions by higher education providers is the prevailing risk-averse culture that exists.

It is true that digital transformation projects are not easy to implement. There are challenges in relation to exiting existing IT contracts and in migrating systems and data to the cloud. It is also true that there are legal and commercial issues to consider, including around data protection and compliance with public procurement laws when moving to the cloud.

However, it is important that these challenges do not act as a blocker to cloud adoption – they can be successfully navigated.

The views expressed about the challenges of migrating to cloud-based solutions, or in relation to the legal and commercial issues inherent in those projects, can often be based on a lack of understanding and experience within institutions regarding cloud adoption. .

Higher education providers need cloud-savvy IT experts to change perceptions and explain away the myths that are often perpetuated. These experts can then help institutions develop a bespoke cloud strategy that best meets the needs of the institution and enables it to simplify its IT estate, keep pace with competition in the market, meet the growing technology demands of students and academics, and open up new commercial opportunities.

Joanne McIntosh is an expert in technology in the higher education sector at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com. Find out more about education technology in our upcoming whitepaper.