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WWW Opportunities and Obstacles for Administrators

Peter Tinson


Development of the World Wide Web and the volume of information accessible through the Web has grown dramatically in the last two years. However, universities' administration departments have yet to take advantage of the new technology in any great way; this paper examines the potential for use of the Web by administrators and some of the obstacles that may impede such use. The author has not made great use of the Web himself and as such some of the ideas for use may already be available and some may not be possible to achieve.

Around the Administration Departments

Research and Consultancy

Research and Consultancy is one area where the Web could make a significant impact. Many of the funding bodies are already connected to the network and some are starting to distribute information electronically. However, the information on the funds available for research comes from a variety of sources and not from the funding bodies alone. Some, such as Refund from the University of Newcastle, are collections of funding information and more general information of interest to the Research offices. The information, however received, is usually photocopied and distributed to the academic staff across the campus. Academics wishing to submit a proposal for funding have to complete what is, in many cases, a standard form and a paper supporting their proposal.

It is clear that a great deal of time could be saved in the research offices if the information emanating from the funding bodies and subscription services such as Refund were available as Web pages for all to view. However, there are some problems with this approach. The first is that the research administration and academics alike are used to being given the information rather than having to go and look for it. Provision of the information on the Web implies a significant change in culture which may prove difficult to achieve. It is possible that if an information provider changes from distributing their information via electronic mail or by post to displaying it on a Web page, that they may need to advertise that new information has been posted in order to get the intended recipients used to looking for information rather than waiting for it to be given to them.

Some of the services which collate information are subscription services and as such should only be available to those that have paid. Before such services can be made available via the Web, there needs to be a method of ensuring that only those sites that have subscribed are able to view the information; those who have not should be able to see a page giving details of the information available and how to subscribe.

The use of the Web need not just be one way. Many of the funding bodies have standard forms for applications for funding; these could be mounted as a Web page for research offices to complete. The supporting paper could then be sent on either by electronic mail. However, when making an application detailed costings of the proposed research project have to be submitted. These should be verified by the research office and in many cases additional verification of the application by senior University Personnel is required. Therefore, whilst it may be possible to allow downloading of the appropriate forms by any individual, it is not permissible to allow applications to be submitted from anyone; the application must be received from a verified source.

Finally, if details of the successful applications were held on the Web, it would be a small step to attach any papers resulting from the research to be held in the same place as the original application and thus build up database of research papers. However, before this can be achieved there is a need for papers published in this way to be refereed ensuring that the publications are of a sufficient quality.


One of the main issues in the Finance departments regarding the use of computing networks has been that of security; it is not generally acceptable for people to be able to view other's personal information and is certainly not acceptable for people to amend it. This means that if the Web is to be used to access central finance computers, there will need to be adequate security in place to prevent unauthorised access. The Finance officers are perhaps more wary of change than others and so even with appropriate security in place, the benefits of Web access to their data will have to be sold to them

One area where the Web may be of use is the publication of annual accounts. Every organisation has to publish its accounts and often a considerable amount of money is spent producing and distributing them. Publication on the Web could reduce that cost considerably, although there would probably still be a need for printed copy.


The obvious area where the Web can be used by Personnel departments is recruitment. The Times Higher Educational Supplement vacancies are now published on the Web some three days before they appear in print. Some sites have experimented with putting their vacancies up on their campus servers. However, it is too early to say whether advertising on the Web will be successful or not. Certainly the Web does not reach everyone at the moment in the same way that a newspaper can and for the immediate future there will not be any significant shift to using the Web exclusively for recruitment. One of the problems is that the vacancies will have to be located in one place in order for there to be a major uptake in Web advertising. It is unlikely that potential employees will look at the vacancy pages for all institutions if they are just looking on the off chance. The collection of vacancies in publications such as the Times Higher Ed allows easier browsing. The Web page though would be useful for local recruitment. Again, a change in culture may be required; potential employees will have to look rather harder to locate the information rather than have it delivered to them.


The Registry is one area where some use is already being made of the Web; many institutions have already made their prospectuses available and the benefits are clear. However, there are areas where a link with the host student records database would be useful, particularly in student recruitment. It should be possible for sites to display the availability of places through Web pages which, if coordinated at a central point, would give prospective undergraduates a clear picture of where the places are, what the entry requirements of the institutions with vacancies are, and so who to contact in order to try to secure a place.


Although those implementing MAC software are split into four families, there seems to be little co-operation or exchange of information between the sites within those families. Part of the reason for this is that implementation plans are sometimes a closely guarded secret and so it is difficult to find out who is working on the same modules. Clearly it would be of some assistance to be easily able to find out which sites had implemented which modules so that some exchange of information could take place without having to seek out who had done what.

Another area where the Web could be of use is fault reporting. There are always likely to be problems with items of software as big as the MAC suite. The need to maintain a full list of reported problems and their solution is important as not all sites are running the most recent version. The list of problems is extensive and it is not easy to search through in order to see if the problem a site has just found is a new fault or one that has already been reported. Again, the organisation of this data into sections for each form would assist searching and so help prevent such duplication. The Web could also be used as an alternative mechanism for reporting faults.


One feature of administration offices is meetings. Considerable time is spent travelling to meetings to meet ones peers for only a few hours; clearly this is one area where the Web may be of some assistance in the short term. The JANET User Group of Administrators (1UGA) has experimented with electronic meetings, firstly with an electronic mail meeting and more recently with a video conference. The latter is probably the way forward but few sites currently have the facilities to act as a node for such a meeting. The electronic mail meeting may well be repeated but in a more structured fashion as it was difficult to follow the agenda with each participant responding to whichever item was of interest.

The Web offers the ability to hold meetings across the network. Separate pages would be available for each item on the agenda with each participant being able to view the comments made already and to add their own comments. Voting could take place on a separate page with the participant clicking on an appropriate box to indicate their response. However, there is a certain amount of setting up that is required before such a meeting can take place and this will need to be reasonably easy for an administrator to achieve if the Web is to be used in this way. There will need to be easy to set security before the meeting could begin as it is unlikely that the facilitator would want anyone other than the participants to contribute or even see the discussions taking place. The tools for this are not yet available to the author's knowledge.


There is little doubt that there is great potential for administrators in using the Web both to access and exchange information and to electronically submit standard information to bodies such as research councils and government agencies. However before this potential is realised the Web itself needs to be sold to the administrators; its benefits highlighted and demonstrated .

It is important to establish friendly mechanisms to access the information on the Web. Any browser must be easy to use and it is desirable to have simple access to key information, either by gathering it all in one place as the JANET User Group for Administrators have done, or through refined searching where perhaps searching on any given term returns a limited subset of the information available on the network. Use of the Web by administration departments will be limited if it is difficult for users to spot items of interest if keyword searches return a large number of largely irrelevant items.

Similarly, there must also be easy mechanisms for loading information onto the Web. Forms based input may assist here but there is the need for wordprocessor to HTML convertors for a large and diverse range of word processors. Institutions computing services must also be prepared to assist in locating information in the local Web structure.

There is a need to ensure that secure information can only be accessed across the Web by those who have permission to see it, particularly with private meetings and subscription services such as Refund, and there needs to be a simple mechanism to allow administrators to set up their own sections and set appropriate security and restrictions.

In order to make effective use of the Web, there needs to be a change of culture - administrators will need to start seeking information rather than waiting to be given it. However, above all, the benefits of the Web need to be demonstrated and sold to key administrators before there will be any major take up.

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