1. The case for abolishing the existing policy has not been made. We have a system which has been in place for a decade and has worked well so far. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it". There is no good reason to move any pages off the Sun7; there is no reason to prevent any existing sites from being hosted on University computers.

  2. The official statements of why the policy needs changing are contradictory. In the policy documents it is stated that the issue is one of security: "Improperly managed web sites however pose a threat to the University, and can be used by unauthorised people to breach network security measures and launch virus and other service affecting attacks, with serious effect."

    Yet at Senate and Council, the acting Registrar and Secretary and the VC (respectively) stated that a change of policy was necessary to prevent the University from being sued because of the content of websites. This is a totally different argument.

  3. At present the University has no proper firewalls round its servers. If the University's concern is to prevent virus / hacking attacks, then surely basic security issues should be addressed instead of taking draconian measures to close down personal websites.

  4. If, on the other hand, it is the legal liability issue that the University is concerned about, then the University's proposed policy is going to make it more, not less, liable to legal action. At present, there is a well-established complaints policy: if the University receives a complaint about the content of a website on a University machine, the site is suspended while the complaint is investigated. If the content is found to be illegal (e.g. because it infringes a company's copyright or incites racial hatred), the site owner is asked to remove that portion of the content which is illegal. In law the University has the defence that it did not know about the illegal content, but acted as soon as it became aware of it. Under the new policy this defence will no longer be available: all personal web pages will be deemed to have been approved by the Head of School concerned, so if a complaint arrives the University will be instantly liable: it will not have the defence of saying "we didn't know about it".

  5. If the University thinks it will have no complaints or legal challenges with websites which are judged "relevant" to their owners' academic work, it is mistaken. Some academics work in sensitive and controversial areas, researching subjects like pornography, child abuse or international politics.

  6. One website owner writes:

    "Currently, a university teacher holds the intellectual copyright on their course material. If the university refuses to allow for personal information providers, then a teacher can legally refuse to allow the university to use WEBCT or whatever stupid system they use to mount the material on the web; indeed, those who let them do so may well be giving up their copyright in so doing. So, effectively IT is pursuing a strategy that can only REDUCE the amount of web-based teaching materials. The university may well have plans to have all course materials mounted on the web. If they abandon the Personal Information Providers then I do not believe they can achieve this. I, for one, would refuse point-blank to allow my teaching material to appear on a managed web-site."

  7. The proposed policy puts unacceptable powers in the hands of Heads of School, leaving it to them to decide what constitutes a site "relevant" to a member of staff's academic or administrative work. It is not fair to expect a HoS to know the details of every colleague's teaching/research/admin, which will often be in fields in which the HoS has no expertise. We anticipate that many HoSs will not be happy about having to make this kind of decision. Moreover, although we were told that HoSs would be consulted about the policy before implementing it, apparently no such consultation has taken place. Since HoSs will be at the sharp edge of implementing the policy, the very least the University could have done is asked them how they felt about this!

  8. At Council, the VC himself introduced the item, saying it had "been through Senate". This is not an accurate representation of what occurred at Senate. At no time did IS or any member of management put the draft policy before Senate for its approval. The issue was only raised at all because one of the elected representatives to Senate (Ron Speirs of Humanities) asked some questions about the proposed policy, at the request of a website owner in his School. It was Ron who got the issue put on the agenda. We do not believe that the proposers of the new policy had any intention of bringing it before Senate at any time. No copies of any version of the policy were made available for the members of Senate. All they had to go on were the questions raised by Ron and the (unsatisfactory) responses from Jill Ball.

  9. Does the plan to build a "site firewall" round departmental websites mean that information on the courses we teach will not be available to the world in general? Many students make use of these sites from all over the world, and many of our prospective students make initial contact with the University of Birmingham as a result of what they find on the personal web pages as a result of doing Google searches.

  10. Many of the Research Councils, e.g. ESRC, are calling for better dissemination of research via the Web. Indeed this may be a criterion for obtaining funding from them. A website owner comments: "Since UoB taxes on overheads at 46% they may be in trouble with the funding councils if they are not providing the necessary services and it is clear that dissemination through a website edited and run by an administrator and at the permission of the head of school may very well lead to conflicts of interest of which they should be aware."

  11. Some of the pages which will presumably be disallowed because they are not "relevant" to the website-owner's academic work are Trade Union pages. One of these features links to sites which campaign against bullying and harrassment in the workplace. This is an unacceptable restriction on the freedom of trade unions to organise on campus and disseminate information.

  12. Many other universities pride themselves on offering free web space to students, indeed this is featured in their prospectuses. The University of Birmingham's policy was once viewed as a model of good practice; now it will be seen as the opposite.


  1. David Supple stated at a seminar held on 22nd January 2004 that the Sun7 machine was to be decommissioned. When Sue Blackwell asked when this had been decided, and pointed out that all her academic work and e-mail was on the Sun7, Supple expressed surprise and stated that in that case the Sun7 would NOT be decommissioned. If the machine is to be left up and running because of its other functions, why not retain it as a web server?

  2. Even for those sites which are judged "relevant to one's academic work" and permitted to remain, apparently they are to move to a different University web server. David Supple stated that the new server would be part of the new Portal; other sources in IS say this is incorrect and in fact personal web sites would be moved to a cluster of PCs run by the Corporate Web Team. This raises at least two specific problems: (a) users will presumably have to edit their pages on other machines and upload them, thereby doubling the among of time taken to maintain them; and (b) the new cluster does not support PHP and MYSQL which are required to run some of the pages currently being maintained on the Sun6 and Sun7, such as the IAFL online bibliography.

  3. Even if it were technically possible, no way are website owners going to have time to move all their files across to the new server within the proposed timescale. The proposal to remove the existing service at the end of March is utterly ridiculous. This does not even allow staff to use the Easter Vacation to move their pages to other sites. The inevitable result is that valuable resources will simply be unavailable for long periods of time. In particular, students will not have access to the sites over the Easter vacation while many of them are relying on them for assessed coursework being written up over that period.

  4. At present, some of us have ALL our work on the Sun7 so that we can have our e-mail, correspondence with students etc., and websites all on the same machine. This makes it easy, for example, to copy a link from an e-mail message and paste it into a web page. Are we going to be able to have all our e-mail, programs, data files etc. on the new server to maintain this kind of integration? If so, it will require a lot more file space and a lot more time and effort transferring everything. If not, we will probably have to edit our web pages on one machine and then upload them to another, instead of editing them directly on the server. Some of us make dozens of changes to our web pages every day. Constant logging on, ftp-ing and uploading will enormously increase the time we have to spend on maintaining our web pages and reduce the time we have for our other academic activities.

  5. At present many of the personal web pages on the Sun7 have a high profile on the Web and feature prominently in Google searches because of the cumulative number of hits. (Try, for instance, Googling the term "forensic linguistics": the two top sites are Bham Uni personal web pages.) If these sites are forced to move to a new Web address at such short notice they will lose their prominence, links from other pages will be broken and potential web surfers will not be able to find them. All of this is damaging to the University's reputation.

This page is maintained by Sue Blackwell
Last updated: 4th March 2004