The sites you can't see at university

The decision to block international Web sites shows a strangely muddled IT strategy in our universities

BEING A STUDENT is hard work, but at least you get free Internet access. Right? Wrong. As of last Monday, many UK universities implemented the mass blocking of the international Web sites, claiming that students' quests for information costs them more money than they managed to suck out of the Funding Councils. So from 1 August, students can read international Web sites only when those are cached, which for practical purposes means the information will be out of date. As the US accounts for almost 50 per cent of the registered domains, that means UK universities will be blocking half of the information resources available online.

Students, applying to universities under the impression that they will be exposed to cutting edge, up-to-date information, will instead only have access to the Web sites of their local rag and a list of country walks in the Lake District. But Berkeley or Stanford University Web sites are now out of the question, as surfing on those will incur charges. Not only is this somewhat xenophobic in the assumption that academic information worth having is only produced in the UK, but the decision to block international Web sites due to supposedly high costs also shows a strangely muddled IT strategy. (http://www.gla.ac.uk/News/charging.html).

In the good old days, before the Net became a commercial venture, universities had free Internet access and used to run their own subsidised networks. Since access to the Internet is no longer free, running a network is suddenly an expensive business, particularly as each university has to pay for its own international traffic. The cost of running a network is prohibitive for most commercial companies short of IBM or Citibank. But there is no need anymore for a university to run its own network, as commercial Internet service providers can do that very well (and very cheaply) for them. Many smaller companies opt for such a solution with great cost efficiency.

Such solutions provide an option to buy a comprehensive, global Internet access at a fixed yearly rate, thus avoiding all the problems with unpredictable costs that are so disliked by the universities' budget planners. So instead of getting the university IT boffins excited about a new project to cache the whole Internet and skimp on student access to information, universities could simply sack their IT managers and spend the money on outsourcing Internet access. They can get a managed service solution from any decent ISP, which will give them all the global bandwidth they want on a fixed fee, not higher than an average IT director's yearly salary.

However, running a university network is a lot of fun and, of course, provides a good source of entertainment, employment , as well as an excuse for attending obscure conferences for the numerous technical networking staff densely populating our great educational institutions. Outsourcing that would be a lot less fun, and mean a lot less jobs for the network gurus. But outsourcing Internet access is likely to be a better solution, providing a modern IT infrastructure for our students, not to mention the taxpayers, whose money is being spent.

LEGACY THINKING has always been an Achilles' heel of the universities, but one would hope our IT-friendly Government will help the boffins out in these times of fast technological change. However, after a brief appearance on-line earlier this year, Tony Blair seems to have taken his eyes off the IT ball and missed the most important Internet conference of the year, the domain names meeting in Geneva. Apparently resolving the key issue of Internet property law and preventing the coming chaos of domain name ownership interfered with Tuscany travel schedules, so nobody from the Government bothered to put in an appearance. All the other governments considered it important enough to send large teams, as the management of Net domain names is critical to the future stability of the Internet. But not our boys, who apparently were too busy choosing the suntan lotion for their hols.

It doesn't matter to Labour that British companies are going to lose their shirts if there is a breakdown of the domain names management structure, and it probably doesn't matter to Blair that British universities are going to look parochial and pathetic to foreign students blocked out of their own countries' Web sites by the "national Web cache" project. However, what may matter is that instead of teaching students how to survive in a global world of science and business, blocked Internet access at universities will contribute to the sense of isolation and being out of the loop, which is already badly affecting the confidence of young scientists and engineers.

The information provision of our universities is too important to leave to chance and a solid advisory body is needed to ensure that, between the fogeyish chancellors and over-enthusiastic boffins, the Internet will not be sold short. Back in 1994, it was the academics who had the Internet access, and nobody on the street could even dream about having an e-mail address. It would be ironic if, four years after we started Cyberia internet cafe to provide Net access to people from outside of universities, it is those some masses who will have full Internet access, and the academics and students who won't. Our students deserve better. If you have good stories about your university shortchanging you, mail me at Eva@never.com

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