The impact of Covid-19 on higher education AV spend

What effect has Covid-19 had on the higher education market? Paul Milligan speaks to those involved to see how they and their clients have adapted to very changing circumstances.

The higher education market has grown steadily in the last decade. The growth of AV over IP technology and the rise on online and on-demand learning has driven AV spend, and a host of AV tech has been launched to make classrooms, breakout spaces and lecture theatres more comfortable, more seamless, more productive and more collaborative places to learn.

At the same universities have become increasingly business focused with expansion into other territories, this has happened simultaneously with students now viewed as customers for the first time, with precise demands to match.

These developments were all put on hold overnight in March when EMEA went into lockdown, and higher education was not exempt from restrictions. Overnight universities were shut until further notice, students were sent home with lecturers following soon after. Those higher education establishments that already had the capabilities shifted exclusively to online teaching to get the scholastic year completed as scheduled.

The summer period, which is traditionally when universities are closed to students, is when three months of upgrades and installs takes place. This is a profitable part of the yearly AV calendar, so what happens when a global pandemic takes hold, were spending plans put on hold because of Covid, or simply cancelled altogether? The consensus after speaking to system integrators heavily involved in this sector seems to be a mixed bag, some installs went ahead, some were postponed, some cancelled outright. “It depended on what part of the stage they were in,” says Kristian Cutting, joint managing director, GV Multimedia. “Everything was evaluated to see whether it was essential or not.”

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New build projects largely went ahead as planned this summer, which was down to punitive delay penalties issued to construction companies. The majority of the work postponed or cancelled was updates and upgrades. “The refresh work, which universities tend to do every three to five years, where they’ll have certain colleges or floors or spaces where they do a refresh, that’s probably taken a knock as much as anything. They are asking do we really need to do that?” says Aidan Crowe, group sales manager, Pure AV. The timing of the project was key to whether it went ahead

or not says Girish Narayanan, managing director, Granteq. “Projects conceived a couple of years ago have gone ahead (with restrictions on installations), whatever has been budgeted for 2019 and early 2020 has been extended but current projects have really not been pushed.”

Projects were cancelled primarily for financial reasons, and it makes sense; if no money is coming in (in the form of new students) it’s a risky time to start spending it. Another contributory factor is uncertainty says Darren Clayman, managing director, IDNS. “Universities just don’t know what’s coming. They didn’t know how many students were going to turn up, what money was going to come in, so the immediate effect was that this summer has been the quietest since we started dealing with universities a number of years ago.” While projects have been halted, he adds, he offers a crumb of comfort for other integrators, “We are being told by a lot of universities that projects are not dead.”

The official announcement that a lockdown period was forthcoming was often made only a few days before it was actioned, so how quickly did universities take to announce spending plans were being put on hold? It would seem the majority of universities acted overnight, “As soon as lockdown occurred they were pulling people away from site,” says Clayman.

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All the integrators we spoke to opened emails the morning after lockdown was put in place to say spending was cancelled/on hold. Some, like GV, did get a chance to speak to clients, “It was a tricky time for everyone, the good thing was they did communicate with us, we were able to see what was going on, and we had great visibility of what they were doing,” says Cutting.

Others we spoke to simply received an email with a single sentence outlining their decision. If universities were halting any AV spend, were integrators able to discuss any potential cut, did they get a chance to plead their case this was actually the time to invest rather than withdraw budgets? “I can’t think of any situation where we had that communication and that engagement to help guide that decision, which was pretty much taken from the top,” says Crowe. This was something repeated again and again to Inavate, the decisions to halt spending came from the very top i.e. chancellors and vice-chancellors, and the decisions were final. “We spoke to some universities but were told ‘that’s it, it’s done’,” says Clayman.

With all of the student body now studying and receiving teaching at home, did any universities take this opportunity to up technology spending, were there any cases were Covid had a positive effect on an integrator’s business this year? “Across the board we have seen a hunkering down, they’ve stopped because of the uncertainty and a lack of structure, they are absolutely playing the safest game they can,” says Clayman. Higher education spending this summer was moved to other areas, rather than increased. “There have definitely been instances where universities have decided to invest in new areas, to get themselves ready for a different teaching delivery,” says Cutting. “It has also been to enable new spaces that may not have been teaching areas before. Typically, it’s been a reroute of spend rather than an increase. So I think some products have won, and some products have lost in that process.”

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The experience of Pure AV this summer was very similar adds Crowe, it’s not new money being spent, but re-routed money. “All of a sudden you have rooms for 12-15 people and you can’t do that anymore. So now I need three rooms kitted out with the same kit to deliver what I was delivering in one space. Has it made more budget available? It’s more a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul. That idea to swap the projector in the lecture theatre for a 50k model will not now happen, instead they will look to do another 14 classrooms instead.”

The products bought for universities this summer has undoubtedly changed, and every integrator we spoke to said the same. “In the past universities would have asked for a big integration system, with audio, video, microphones, and everything, whereas now they will probably end up with just a TV and a sound bar, and the professor with about 10 students (in the class) and then 14 or 15 of them remotely participating,” says Narayanan. “The universities not looking at technology for distance learning have had to pull up their socks and introduce software- based codecs that can enable distance learning. They have had to upgrade the back end for recording and ask us to integrate their learning management system with systems such as Blackboard or Moodle.”

Demand for products like Panopto has clearly risen this summer, with universities either installing the lecture capture platform or updating existing installs. “We have definitely had more discussions about AV over IP and control and administration over IP, products like Extron Global Viewer or Crestron XiO Cloud. Where they had been toying with this idea or had the basic setup of that solution already, Covid is now driving them to make it a big focus and use it more widely, there’s a number of universities who have spent this summer getting the network ready for remote management of AV systems,” says Crowe.

A combination of necessity and shortage of availability (caused by a combination of Covid-driven manufacturing shortages in SE Asia) has seen spend for UC kit such as cameras ‘go through the roof’ this summer says Cutting. “The technology universities want is mobile systems, based around space maximisation. We’ve seen a lot of purchases of hybrid systems and UC stuff, just to enable even more classes. One of the difficulties has been getting stock, and stock levels have sometimes dictated what the clients choose. Some of the traditional AV stuff has seen slightly less demand, universities aren’t kitting out whole rooms, they’re adding on kit to make rooms more hybrid.”

September and October this year saw students return, but many institutions have restrictions in place on numbers. Some classes are being taught across two or three different rooms at once, or students are given access to sites on different days. This has placed more strain on streaming and lecture capture systems, already working on sometimes limited bandwidth within universities ageing infrastructure. One potential opportunity for integrators is universities looking to install broadcast studios to supplement or even replace lecture theatres in the future. If on-demand learning was on the rise before Covid, then a global pandemic which forced all the students to go home has been a huge boost.

Granteq is in the middle of a couple of broadcast projects for universities at the moment says Narayanan. “They are building exclusive studios purely based on broadcast standards, with good acoustic treatments, lighting, echoed by Crowe, and his point is something that comes up every time we discuss the higher education sector. “Lecturers aren’t necessarily techie people, so taking them out of their teaching environment into a broadcast studio, is that going to work? It’s going to take a lot of work to get that right.”

The integrators we spoke to were all rightfully disappointed at how this summer has panned out, but were all sanguine at what has been an unprecedented year for everyone. Looking forward, what will Covid do for future investment? Will we see less spend in 2021 as universities keep a tight grip on the purse strings or will they spend the cash they didn’t spend in 2020? Will continuing uncertainty see spending on hold for an even longer period? “From the discussions I’ve had with industry colleagues, and with people from the finance sector, 2021 is probably going to be the same as 2020, and will pick up by 2022,” says Narayanan. “I think 2022 is more realistic, we’re already seeing some bids coming out for next year, but nowhere near the level and not enough to catch up with what’s going on this summer. It will be nearer to next summer before universities actually get a plan of what’s going to be done, and then it will be the next 12 months to implement it,” says Clayman.

Universities like AV tech and will always spend money on AV tech, while it may not be true this year, they will return to technology because it can help deliver first class teaching environments. You could easily argue this is the time to increase investment in technology – tech can turn any room into a classroom, more students learning remotely etc – but we understand why many are exercising caution. The worry for many integrators is that Covid will see institutions ‘play it safe’, and investment and innovation in higher education will suffer for years to come, as will the bottom line of many integrators.