University losses rise as students surf Net

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The Independent Online

British universities are losing hundreds of thousands of pounds because students are using university computers to surf the Net and download computer games, sports news and their favourite songs.

Official figures suggest that universities are losing a total of about £450,000 this academic year, rising to £600,000 next year, as students and staff turn to cyberspace for their personal needs. The worst hit is Oxford with of £21,443; then Cambridge with £19,886; and thirdly, Imperial College London with £17,760.

The calculations are based on 15 per cent of internet access costs being devoted to personal needs, according to a recommendation from Malcolm Read, secretary of the Joint Information Systems Committee that oversees university computer networks. This year's total bill for all higher education institutions in the UK is £3m.

Mr Read said: "Network costs are escalating. We want universities to manage their internet traffic effectively."

Universities, which are charged according to the volume of the information downloaded, are concerned about certain kinds of cyber traffic, particularly the downloading of music, which is expensive. Mr Read said he was also worried about staff or students listening to overseas radio broadcasts via the internet, which is expensive.

Alex Reid, director of Oxford's computing services, said the university was concerned about staff or students abusing the system: "We monitor the volume of traffic. We are working to identify abuse. But there's not a great deal we can do because we allow students and staff a moderate amount of recreational use of the computer network. We think it's important for them to develop their use of the technology."

Universities say that as soon as they identify a problem, computer users find a way to circumvent it. They also argue they are one step behind the technology. Oxford and other universities have banned access to a US website called Napster which offers an easy way for music files to be exchanged. But they don't know how long the ban will hold.

Cambridge University passes internet costs to the colleges. "The colleges impose moral pressure on their students to be sensible in their use of the Net," said Mike Sayers, director of computer services. "None of us want to get into the business of generating 20,000 individual bills."

Edinburgh University has taken active steps to cut its internet bill. Some costs are passed on to academic departments. Its bill has been halved from a predicted £88,000 a year to £44,000. "We have made departments aware that sitting and listening to Radio Poland all day costs real money," said Brian Gilmour, the director of computer services.

Another solution is for universities to separate the leisure and academic use of the internet. A communications company, Keycom plc, is offering universities the chance to do this. It charges students a small fee for recreational use, and has been introduced in at few higher education institutions.

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