Universities scramble to regain lost ground, fund new tech

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Spending cuts, declining fees and falling hostel revenues are putting pressure on educational institutions’ IT budgets, hampering their efforts to fully embrace innovative technologies.

This is according to a study titled “Post-Pandemic IT Infrastructure in South African Universities”, conducted by IDC and commissioned by Dell Technologies.

It shows how local universities have had to ramp up their digital transformation initiatives to accommodate the increase in online learning since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the resulting move toward hybrid learning models.

The study analyses key trends shaping the higher education sector in SA and gauges the adoption of IT hardware, server and storage equipment among universities across the country.

Secondary research, including IDC's quarterly research trackers and advisory work, was conducted for CIOs and other ICT decision-makers.

SA has 25 private universities and over 20 public universities across its nine provinces. Universities currently accommodate more than one million students, with government planning to increase university enrolment to 1.5 million by 2030.

The findings highlight that university CIOs need to reprioritise their technology spending plans in 2021, and beyond, with as little as 5% to 10% of surveyed university budgets being allocated to IT projects.

It notes the institutions face an urgent need to modernise and automate existing systems and platforms by implementing emerging technologies such as cloud computing, artificial intelligence (AI) and data analytics.

“Although learning is now largely conducted remotely, via various online platforms, challenges still exist,” says Linda Ngenoh, research author.

“Numerous students either do not have enough internet bandwidth to study online, or lack the required equipment to do so. University incomes have also declined as student/faculty residences have remained vacant. In addition, some universities have had to spend more on licences for software tools (such as Zoom) and purchase special data packages for staff and students.”

The research is based on detailed qualitative interviews with key public universities in SA, vendors, original equipment manufacturers and channel partners.

Time is of the essence

Education at universities was disrupted at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, with lockdowns and movement restrictions preventing students from attending lessons in classrooms.

As a result of this disruption, events on most 2020 university calendars were cancelled, with three months of study time lost as universities transitioned to distance learning.

The new university year, which normally starts in January, was later moved to March, and this educational lag is expected to spill over into 2022 and beyond, according to the research.

The study shows that until recently, universities had deployed up to 250 server and storage systems in their IT infrastructure environments on average, and before the pandemic, administration departments used about 60% of existing IT infrastructure capacity. However, this has changed as academic departments have shifted to online teaching, and so has the level of usage.

Some research areas currently being explored by universities in SA include quantum computing, AI, genomics, astrology, skills development, robotics, astronomy, health sciences and social sciences.

Still waiting for government

Last month, higher education, science and innovation minister Dr Blade Nzimande expressed concern that internet connectivity issues and slow access to learning devices were among the key challenges that compromised the quality of education for tertiary students during SA’s hard lockdown.

Nzimande unpacked the findings of a study, conducted by wellness and development agency Higher Health, on the social impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on young people in the post-school education and training sector.

The study revealed that over half of the surveyed students found it difficult to communicate with their learning institutions during the initial stages of the lockdown, with 5% reporting not having access to the internet, and only 38% of Technical and Vocational Education and Training College students reported their institutions offered virtual learning.

Government’s long process to supply National Student Financial Aid Scheme students with electronic devices to aid their studies during the lockdown has also contributed to digital challenges faced by university students.

The laptop delivery process had been marred by controversies since it was first announced last April, with only a fraction of the total 730 000 laptops intended for students having been distributed so far.

Looking to the future, the IDC-Dell study notes that universities will have to adapt their digital transformation strategy based on key future technology shifts, with enhanced connectivity and computing power, to modernise current IT infrastructure while seeking new ways to invest in and consume technology.

University IT departments are now shifting focus to adopt better computing power and increased storage, to handle the vast amounts of data being generated from online learning platforms. However, only a few use cases of emerging tech exists at the university level – for example, while AI is used to enhance the admission process by enabling universities to forecast demand, the use of AI to deliver classes is yet to gain traction at the university level.

“Universities, like most organisations, are undergoing a process of rapid digitisation and whilst there are barriers that need to be considered, CIOs in the education sector need to be empowered to assist universities to transition into the digital area, by being in a position to secure grants to gain access to the hardware and storage they require to transition to an advanced hybrid-learning model,” says Doug Woolley, MD of Dell Technologies South Africa.

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