African NRENs and their role in addressing financial stress of universities and research institutions

That many African higher learning and research institutions are facing funding problems is not news.  Most universities across Africa are struggling to operate to their full potential due to underfunding, a development that has in some cases forced universities to resort to hiking fees already considered high for many an African student. 

The raising of  fees by universities has often been met with hostility from students as evidenced by the recent #FeesMustFall student protest movement that began in October 2015 in response to an increase in fees at South African Universities. 

While students are seen to be the main victims of this higher education funding crisis, universities and research institutions are also feeling the pinch of this wave which is compromising their education and research output quality. 

So, in the midst of this prevailing crisis, do Vice Chancellors and CEOs know that NRENs can play a big role to save their institutions from being hit further by this crisis?

To answer this question NUANCE engaged the Research and Education Network of Uganda, (RENU), and the NREN’s CEO Eng. Isaac Kasana shared RENUs insights on the issue from an own perspective in this write-up: 

Over the years, it has become evident that Vice Chancellors and CEOs of research organisations make decisions based mostly on current critical needs and desired strategic direction and not on visions of what connectivity could do to transform education and research in the future! Here are some of the areas African NRENs have demonstrated to be part of the desired solutions:

i.    Reducing the cost of instruction:
We see Uganda’s higher education institutions (HEIs) finally starting to embrace e-learning and other forms of online education resources with the primary motivation to save on the cost of education delivery. Initially, this is mostly for (continuing professional development (CPD) and post-graduate education. Unfortunately, we do not yet have quantitative impact assessment to justify some of these observations so NRENs must help HEIs to carry out cost-benefit analysis. Web or video conferencing tools to enable distributed lecture delivery and distributed conference participation are being tested and RENU is piloting one such tool starting 2016.

ii.    Open education resources:
Sharable open resources are lowering the cost of text books and current publications for libraries, students, and faculty. Open data, open science, open webinars are increasingly becoming better understood and utilised, YouTube for education and other education related content are growing in demand. But they do require broadband Internet and we believe that RENU needs to establish locally hosted education channels that are dedicated to R&E content delivery that are separate from general commodity content.

iii.    Reduced cost of operation for federal structured universities & HEIs:
For HEIs that have geographically distributed campuses or teaching centres, creation of VPNs to enable the sharing of their ERPs, VoIP phone services, internal content repositories and multi-site lecture delivery has great potential to lower their operating cost and recurrent expenditures.

iv.    Provision of low-cost broadband connectivity: 
It is increasingly becoming necessary to provide connectivity and Internet access for students and faculty on campus – for their smartphones, laptops, desktops and computer labs. Students are shunning institutions that do not provide good Internet services. Students are not buying books as much as it was in the past and are instead reverting to online access to educational resources all the time. Universities therefore require broadband at very low unit price to be able to serve such large demand in their technology budgets but which lowers what the student has to spend on his/her education.

v.    Reduced cost of operating campus-based infrastructure:
With such dependency on ICT the setting up and managing of disaster recovery sites (DRS) is a critical need. With the advent of effective NRENs, connectivity costs between primary and off-campus DRS becomes much lower and yet with much better availability performance and thus making NREN-hosted DRS and private cloud computing much more cost effective than dedicated institution financed DRS installations, while performing better than cloud services located on other continents while at the same time improving the content-density of African networks. Therefore, African NRENs need to invest in data centres and open source virtualization platforms that are not too costly for providing Infrastructure as a Service to member institutions.

vi.    Network and Data Security:
Protecting connected higher education and advanced research ICT assets against cybersecurity attacks and threats and the trail blazing of continuously evolving security protocols, by operating an effective and efficient R&E (Computer Emergency Readiness Team) CERT programme, is an important NREN commitment. This is usually not a paid service but university and research institution leaders need to appreciate the cost of operating such a CERT programme as well as the LATENT COST of NO CERT in order to unreservedly prioritise NREN annual membership fees.

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