As one of the UK’s leading higher education institutions, The University of Exeter’s appeal as a centre of learning is established, but it is its technological prowess that continues to drive its role as a centre of global research
Writer: Matthew Staff
Project Manager: Jamie Sutherland
Since receiving its Charter and full University status in 1955, the University of Exeter has evolved into one of the UK’s leading academic institutions; diversifying and expanding in line with the most contemporary of trends, technologies and demands in order to remain a consistently relevant and thriving option for both national and international students.
Joining the prestigious Russell Group of research-led establishments in 2009 affirmed this dedication to modernity and innovation, and in no way is this better demonstrated than through its commitment to technology over the decades.
In recent years, this has culminated in a series of significant investments in the University’s IT infrastructure, specifically targeted at optimum performance across computing in research; in particular, focusing on areas of electromagnetic materials, nanomaterials and graphene.
“We have, in-house, all the state-of-the-art materials, nanofabrication and characterisation facilities required by our researchers and students,” affirms and introduces the University of Exeter’s Chief Information and Digital Officer, Alan Hill. “This includes e-beam lithography, thin film deposition, plasma-etching systems, and associated photonic laboratories; through to a suite of 3D printers and fully-equipped microwave and acoustics laboratories. This work has been directly supported by our Zen supercomputer and Beowulf clusters.”
Mirroring the growth of the institution’s technological prowess has been the size of the University itself; four campuses now making up the entire offering. Across each campus, a series of significant investments have been made in recent years.
“At the Falmouth campus a £30 million investment was made in 2013 to create the Environment and Sustainability Institute, which delivers cutting-edge, inter-disciplinary environmental research and innovative business practices; while in 2016 a £50 million investment created the Living Systems Institute (LSI), a world-class, next generation, collaborative research community to revolutionise the diagnosis and treatment of illnesses,” Hill continues. “The LSI will enable our researchers across mathematics, biology, evolutionary genetics, biochemistry, and physics to work in combination to generate new knowledge.”
High quality research labs, bio-imaging facilities, physics spaces, and high performance computing further enables the LSI to be a hub for the analysis of the precise operation of living systems and once again epitomises the University’s drive to achieve productive and sustainable results for both students and wider industry.
Hill adds: “The world-class academics, facilities, and students can make a real difference to businesses and we provide skilled support to make sure that solutions are tailored to the needs of the business and deliver optimum results.
“For research, recent results place the University of Exeter 16th nationally for world-leading publications. This level of investment enables the University to meet its strategic vision of “Making the exceptional happen”.”
As a globally-recognised centre of research excellence, the University is especially renowned for its collaborations with, and impacts on, areas including astrophysics, healthcare, biotech, culture, government, advanced engineering, data science, energy, mining, the environment, and food security. Supporting research into all of these facets in the past few months has been a recently acquired state-of-the-art supercomputer named ‘Isca’.
Hill explains: “Isca is housed in our recently modernised data centre, and by investing significant sums in this on-site facility it demonstrates a strategic level of commitment to high performance computing in support of research and education.
“It represents a £3 million investment by the University, designed to serve the advanced computing requirements of all research disciplines. Isca combines a traditional computing cluster with a virtualised cluster environment, providing a range of node types in a single machine, and as such is the first of its kind in a UK University.”
The student experience
Of course, such innovation and technological intelligence in an academic domain would have been unthinkable upon the University of Exeter’s inception in 1955 when just four faculties of arts, science, social studies and law were offered; or even through the fast-developing 1960s which saw the unveiling of its postgraduate medical school. However, since the arrival of Professor Sir Steve Smith in 2002, the University’s pace of progression has accelerated dramatically and the evolution of its research base has encapsulated this mission most aptly.
As Hill details, a key to this concerted expansion and diversification of academic influence has been the strategic partnerships entered into with equally market-leading entities.
“Collaboration is at the heart of research and education and to support this, the University has invested in Microsoft Office 365 and the collaboration tools such as Sharepoint, Teams and One Drive for Business,” he confirms to this end. “This can be used effectively to support international collaboration, which is so important in achieving world-class research. A direct impact of this is to help prepare students for the changing workplace where collaboration is vital and automation is increasingly seen in business models.
“We have also invested in ‘back office’ systems for our student information system, HR and finance in order to automate and modernise in the most efficient way. These systems of record form the basis on which we set out to build a more differentiated approach that builds on the uniqueness of the University of Exeter.”
Connecting the data in the aforementioned systems to the powerful WSO2 open source integration layer, enables new services to be created at pace; inevitably a benefit for students whose advanced education lifecycle lasts just three-four years in most cases.
“Digital and IT services play a significant part in the student experience,” Hill notes before discussing some of most significant enablers on offer at the University of Exeter. “The lecture capture capability is used to automatically record academic presentations and content. This can be viewed later by students to support their understanding and revision. A recent change of supplier to Panopto has created a cloud-based service that has seen a significant increase in viewings equivalent to 50 views per student over a year.
“This is set to grow and is already becoming an area to consider for further enhancement. Students view these videos in the Moodle virtual learning environment, which holds all the information and content for their courses.”
In the day-to-day life of the student, there is a web and mobile app named iExeter, that gives them the information they need for their activities, while emails and timetables are easily accessible alongside a record of their grades, café opening times, maps, transport information, sports centre availability, etc as part of this ExLibris platform. Used, on average, eight times a day by every student, iExeter serves as yet another significant digital channel emphasising the role that digitalisation plays in higher education.
“We are actively optimising our supplier network so that we can focus on digital service integration and work to create a differentiating ‘digital edge’ over our competitors,” Hill affirms. “Supporting these digital services is a high bandwidth network with in-depth expertise supplied by Axians; and high quality Wi-Fi coverage for all campuses and residences.”
Ultimately, this combination of internal technological knowhow and entrepreneurial ambition, paired with high-profile relationships with industry heavyweights, provides the University with a “digital edge” in the most digital of eras.
“The IT department is poised and ready to respond, but to also act as a catalyst for change,” Hill states. “This requires a modernisation of the technology platforms and a change to the organisational structure and skills that are needed.
“Tackling this, while ensuring business as usual is not impaired, is always going to be a challenge, but it is absolutely necessary if the University is to deliver real value and to continue to attract the very best talent.
“For the future, we are focusing on moving more services to the cloud; improving data analytics as a way to improve student success; expanding virtual reality in different subjects; and focusing hard on the overall student experience whenever they interact with the digital services,” Hill concludes as he glances towards the next stage of development. “In the future, we would expect to be an IT organisation that focuses primarily on delivering digital services that are palpably delivering value to academics and students. Hardware, network and storage will be streamlined and delivered mainly by suppliers to provide a resilient and secure environment that just works.
“We have built research power significantly over the past few years, supported by Exeter IT, and with an equal focus on education and learning, we will create the ‘digital edge’ that enhances the face-to-face learning experience and directly contribute to making the exceptional happen.”