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'Universities must take ICT and data into their own hands again'

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Universities are making themselves dependent on big tech companies, which is being increasingly criticised by co-determination councils, says Rien Wijnhoven, chair of the national association of university councils, Lovum (Dutch acronym).

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In December, students in Leiden protested against the use of smart cameras on campus because they felt that their privacy was being invaded. But according to Wijnhoven, there are lots of other software putting privacy at risk.

He is the chair of Tilburg University's University Council, as well as of the National Platform for University Co-determination Bodies (Lovum). Wijnhoven calls for higher education institutions to take more control and go back to developing their own software.

He is not alone in thinking this is an important issue. On Tuesday, the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences held an online meeting on that very subject.

Cheating
Universities make use of systems supplied by the big players in the market and that is definitely not always the best choice, states Wijnhoven. For instance, it emerged recently that anti-cheating software Proctorio is unsafe as hackers were able to gain easy access to students’ computers.

But hackers and criminals are not the only problem, as the companies behind the softwares can also be an issue, says Wijnhoven. “The question is: what happens to our personal information and to research data that we store in these systems? This question is becoming more and more important, now that we are doing so many activities online.”

He stresses that data is the new gold. “We work from home, we stream content, we follow classes online, we make use of student and user data, we deploy algorithms… What happens to all that data?” His point is that one never knows precisely what the big companies do with all that data and we can't be sure of what they will do with it in the future, either.

Osiris
Wijnhoven himself has some experience with ICT. “Universities used to build their own systems. Utrecht University made Osiris, which was successful. But it was sold off years ago and is now in the hands of a big American company, which manages Osiris for a considerable number of Dutch higher education institutions. It seemed like a good idea at the time: leaving the administration of such systems to companies that are good at it, because that would be cheaper and better. I was also guilty of misjudgement in that respect, even though people were already warning about it at the time.”

He advocates a change of course. “We shouldn’t make our education and research dependent on the revenue models of tech companies, We have the knowledge, the money and the organisational skills to do it ourselves.”

Not all in one go, of course. Universities cannot build systems just like that. “But let’s start by managing research data and student data ourselves. Good initiatives have already been taken in that regard.”

The question is: why didn't they do that long ago? Two years ago, the rectors of Dutch universities wrote an opinion piece for newspaper Volkskrant in which they said something along those lines, and last year cyber professors urged their universities to stop using the cloud. “Nothing against our administrators”, says Wijnhoven, “but ICT knowledge can generally be found lower in the organisation. Administrators already have enough to do. For the most part they leave ICT to others.”

Teamwork
That has to change, says Wijnhoven. There needs to be “more vision and in particular more teamwork”. The co-participation councils are keen to contribute to that discussion. “The subject is raised from time to time, but it’s somewhat fragmented. We talk about specific amounts for new ICT systems, for example. But we also ought to be discussing what such systems do and what the consequences would be for staff and students.”

In the long run, there needs to be a public European platform for this, in Wijnhoven’s view. “But that is still a long way off and maybe it shouldn’t be our immediate target. Let’s start here in the Netherlands. It won’t be easy but it’s similar to the battle against climate change: you simply have to start before it’s too late.

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