Below is the content of the UCU paper on IT given to members of the university senate before their 16 January meeting.
Below is a summary of comments from academics, IT staff and UCU Committee members, many of which have been raised multiple times at various meetings across the university.
The IT reorganisation was undertaken without sufficient analysis of:
- the services IT needs to deliver
- the skills and resources required to deliver those services
The predictable result is loss of service rather than the increased efficiency that may have been possible with a more professional approach
This is why the £3million saving was not a saving – it was cutting costs without understanding or anticipation of the impact, for example:
- The number of ‘single points of failure’ within IT has risen significantly. This substantially increases the University’s risk profile. If a service goes down or a statutory obligation is not met as a result of the sole support being unavailable, the resultant cost could exceed that £3million ‘saving’. This implies overly simplistic risk evaluation and planning.
- Because these are potential costs rather than known recurrent costs, it is all too easy for management to disregard them.
- Reorganising IT isn’t the problem here, the problem was the reorganisation being done without deep and thorough consultation, with the emphasis given to cost and staff reduction, through overly simplistic understanding of the sector.
Importance of Specialist IT in Faculties
Individuals working in faculty IT typically have extremely valuable subject specific qualifications in that area, which enhances their collective efficiency, minimises delays and costs and reduces stress and time for all concerned. This applies both to the academic-related IT staff and the technical IT staff. Unfortunately, those staff have all but left the faculties now and indeed, more will leave in the first week of the New Year.
The idea that because you can do IT in MAPS, you will be able to translate this model easily to, for example, Medicine is wrong. This might apply to a generic service typically found in some commercial organisations, but to support world class discipline specific and specialist academic research and teaching, it is an essential requirement to have IT staff who are qualified and familiar with the subject area and are fully supportive of and motivated by the key local research and teaching needs. This means that a difficult path has to be followed. Not only do the changes need to stop but they need to be reversed. And those specialised staff who have been physically moved out of the faculties need to be physically moved back.
In relation to restricting admin rights, this would be a policy which might work if there were sufficient IT staff with admin rights as well as the relevant experience on-hand to react quickly and effectively to such requests and resolve the problem, even outside core time. There are not and this risks reputational damage and network security.
Backlog of IT requests
There are now insufficient staff to deal with issues in a timely way. The ticketing system is not only cumbersome for the user, but doubly so for the IT staff and has resulted in an economy all of its own, with tickets being closed prematurely or not addressed in a timely manner. Many IT staff have used ticketing systems before which are much more efficient, cheaper and usable than the current system.
The IT Service Desk is severely understaffed, and IT staff from other areas are routinely dealing with calls and emails about issues they don’t have the skills or experience to understand. Requests and problems are often allocated to the wrong team which can cause significant delays for users.
Essential Infrastructure and Investment in Staff
IT must be seen as essential infrastructure; more essential than new buildings. A major spending programme must be initiated, along the lines of the major building programme. Spend money on IT infrastructure rather than on outsourcing. Outsourcing reduces the prospects of learning what works and doesn’t for each academic need, given the local constraints, hardware and exposed vulnerabilities to external changes in third party capability, costs and motivations. This investment must include recruitment of experienced staff from the HE sector, who are given the resources and skills investment to do the job. The pressure to downgrade staff and/or keep staff at the same grade, but overloading them with additional duties, must halt. On the contrary, to retain the experienced staff who remain, there must be a pressure to upgrade staff, and in particular to recognise, develop and reward the professional specialists again. If we do not do this, our competitor institutions will continue to overtake us and precipitate the departure of leading academic colleagues in the same numbers that IT staff have left. We believe this poses a severe and immediate corporate risk to the university that Senate should be made aware of. We are currently on the cliff edge of significant reputational damage being caused to this university. We are told that the IT reorganisation has saved £3million, but there seems no accountability for how much this has cost the university in terms of lost research and additional workload.
We must also stop ignoring government policy on the use of open source (free) software or simplistically interpret such advice. Indeed, academia should be developing, with appropriate expert as well as commercial input and involvement, strategies to adapt and develop such leading edge software and hardware tools, which is surely a key aspect of our research mission both locally and nationally. This will inevitably imply a greater emphasis on Linux/Unix, particularly in Research IT, and will mean that the number of supporting staff will have to be increased. However the overall cost savings, in terms of using free software, should not be trivialised.
IT staff morale is in free fall. IT staff are either being encouraged or forced to take on new roles. This increases the loss of experienced staff because the existing experienced staff are being asked to take on roles which they have never done before and to suffer the stresses of change and simultaneous performance management. It has resulted in an IT experience drought and there is no prospect of this coming to an end, unless staff are moved back to their areas of expertise. This would involve a complete reversal of the changes which have been initiated.
Many IT staff in new roles are seeing that their old roles are not being filled, leaving them feeling obliged to continue their old role whilst attempting to do the new role, therefore trying to complete two jobs at the same time. This is an intolerable situation and again, highly stressful and demoralising for the staff involved.
IT has been reorganised into a number of new teams. The responsibilities of these teams are not clear.
The new teams are short of staff, so few, if any, teams are able to take responsibility for anything more. Yet staff have left and IT systems are supposed to be moved away from the faculties.
Comments from Academics from three different STEM Faculties:
The key concerns for us as IT users are:
- The Service Now system can lead to even urgent jobs taking a very long time to be fixed, losing valuable research time.
- The loss of admin rights. While security reasoning for this may be understandable, such a policy does need to be supported by a fast response from IT. For example, we do a lot of programming and often need to download programs or add-ons in order to be able to continue with our research. This wasn’t a problem when the support we had was more tailored to our needs.
- One can spend £550 million on buildings, but if you do not spend money on research computing support, then this will be a waste
- The university is not spending money on computing infrastructure and this will have a bigger impact than not spending on buildings
- IT Staff are demoralised in this area. Our School has lost 2-3 good members of staff (out of 5). There are now problems as they have not been replaced. Research computing needs linux/unix /Macintosh support. There now is very little and academics cannot get the support.
- IT is set up to support Windows. Research computing is different e.g. the SPSS software package. I wanted it for a student to run on a Mac. The university has bought a software licence, but there is no support and no way that I can effectively download it on the Macs. The university NSS scores will drop because of this.
- It is questionable whether IT centrally can ever supply the flexible linux type research computing support. If someone works in IT and is good at Linux etc., then they can get a lot more money working outside.
- There has to be a close relationship in research computing with the scientists, and I believe this is best served in faculties.
- The new head of research computing was good, but as predicted, within 9 months he has left, due to lack of resources and an inability to be able to do anything.
- The university has to make a conscious decision as to whether it wants to stay in the premier division of teaching and research (and research computing), or become a 2nd division team.
- IT and research computing staff are expensive, and can get well paid elsewhere. The university has to accept this fact.
- IT qualified staff need to be based in the School they support because timely and appropriate access, particularly in laboratories, is essential and cannot be provided at one remove.
- To give a recent example, as a result of the power outage last week, the settings on our lab computers have disabled numerous instrumentation and without admin access I am unable to fix the problems which I could do in minutes. Instead I am forced to put in numerous support requests which are estimating a 23 day response time.
- In the meantime our laboratory is disabled for the sake of an archaic security policy.
- Some of my support requests are months old, nearly all of them I could deal with myself if I had permission.