University in £10 million IT system overspend

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Academics have expressed concern at the revelation that the University has spent £10 million more than originally planned on an IT system which has now been delayed by several years.

A Freedom of Information Request submitted by Cherwell revealed that spending on the Student Systems Programme has been revised to £17.2 million, having originally been set at £6.6 million. The final components of the system, which was commissioned in 2011 and originally scheduled for completion in August 2013, are now due to be delivered in August 2015.

A University spokesperson explained that it was realised in January 2013 that the original schedule was unobtainable, and the resulting increase in budget principally relates to the staff costs of the longer schedule.

Progress reports on the project circulated to staff between 2011 and 2014 allude to the failure to meet the original budget and deadline. However, the reports do not refer explicitly to the extent of the overspend or the rescheduling of the project.

Peter Oppenheimer, Emeritus Fellow of Christ Church College, told Cherwell that the project going over budget was a “clear indication of mismanagement, and a hopeless confusion of objectives”.

He continued, “While the humanities and the social sciences are threatened with budget cuts and the loss of posts, the University has managed a sensational IT overspend in short order. While college administrations work to budget constraints, the University passes on shortages to the likes of the humanities.

“Of course, this is a capital project, not a recurring overspend. However, if every capital project were overspent, the results would be disastrous.”
Likewise, speaking on the condition of anonymity, a senior figure within the University commented, “It is remarkable that a university such as ours has got into such an administrative muddle.

“One can’t be too self-righteous, as all government IT projects go over budget, but they were not realistic about the budget at the outset.”

Madgdalen Fellow Dr John Nightingale, Chair of Oxford’s IT committee, which was set up in 2012 to ensure more effective scrutiny of University IT, acknowledged, “The original budget and associated planning for this project was not up to scratch.”

However, he clarified, “The University has learnt hard lessons from this. The project has been scrutinised very carefully by the key University committees.
“Tough decisions have been taken and there is now real confidence in the leadership team that has been put in place and its ability to deliver the rephased implementation plan.”

Dr Nightingale also pointed out that the revised programme will now also include an admissions system.

There have also been concerns expressed at the fact that no reports had been made to Congregation (the University’s Parliament and sovereign body) on the situation.

Peter Oppenheimer told Cherwell, “The failure to report the blunder to Congregation is not indicative of any particular cover-up, but of Wellington Square [the University’s central administration]’s general lack of deference and respect for Congregation.”

The same anonymous senior University figure similarly remarked, “Congregation simply has no oversight of the administrative division, meaning that Wellington Square is a bit of a mystifying world. There is a very real sense that academics have lost control, and that the administration has become a force in itself.”

However, Dr Nightingale pointed out, “For better or worse Congregation does not take an active role in such matters unless its members request a debate.”

A spokesperson for the University told Cherwell, “This new budget is in line with the cost of new systems of this type at other universities. Every university now has such a system; a quick survey of Russell Group peers suggested that if they were embarking on a replacement project it would cost £15-20 million.”

The spokesperson continued, “The new system will support many aspects of teaching and learning and has been developed in close collaboration with academic and administrative staff and students from across the collegiate University.”

The Student Systems Programme is intended to replace the former Oracle Student System, as well as incorporating systems including the online tutorial report system, OxCORT, and the Graduate Supervision System.

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