When the bytes go out: preparing digital education for power outages

Steve Bailey
Steve Bailey

The coming winter is predicted to bring with it unprecedented challenges for the UK in terms of energy supply. To date, most headlines warn of the spiralling cost of energy and how it is impacting businesses and the cost of living.

Man calculating the cost of energy.

However, commentators and organisations, including National Grid, are also warning of the potential for an energy shortage, which may limit or even interrupt power supplies.

The collective sector response to the pandemic was a rapid acceleration in the adoption of digital technology. Disruption in power supply will severely test the increased reliance on the internet and members should ask themselves what it means to be without it and how they will cope.

It is important to balance these predictions with Government assurances that supplies will continue, but equally it behoves any organisation to plan ahead and agree what proportionate steps they can take to limit disruption and ensure the continuity of day-to-day operations.

Draw on recent experience

As tertiary education’s digital agency, we encourage institutions to take a closer look at the impact of power interruptions and to put plans in place to mitigate the impact. All Jisc members will have well-established disaster recovery and business continuity plans in place, but now may be the time to take a fresh look at them to check they will be fit for purpose should the lights go out.

Lessons learned during the pandemic, when providers had to switch to remote work and study almost overnight, might be useful here. For example, might the same individuals who came together to coordinate the COVID-19 response be usefully and rapidly reconvened to ensure a holistic response to this new challenge?

There will be obvious limits to the degree of commonality between these two sets of challenges and the extent to which experience of one can help inform the other.

Tough decisions will need to be taken regarding where any available power is to be channelled to keep disruption and harm to a minimum.

Whatever the approach, tough decisions will need to be taken regarding where any available power is to be channelled to keep disruption and harm to a minimum. In this case, a reliable system of back-up generators is likely to be crucial in the case of a power outage, which will involve the estates team working in partnership with colleagues from IT.


In the event of a power outage, the security of the campus, its systems and its data will be one of a range of elements to consider.

Cyber security is likely to be at the forefront of many minds at the moment, and there are security implications to consider if the power is switched off, including around data security.

There may already be the plans in place for dealing with the aftermath of a successful cyber-attack where, without warning, access to core systems is prevented or restricted and manual processes need to be instigated.

Consider the potential implications for the continuity of teaching and learning in the event of interruptions to the supply of power.

But thanks to the all-pervasive nature of digital in education today, the shadow cast by the threat of reductions or interruptions to the supply of power will not fall solely on our IT colleagues. In particular, it would be wise for all universities and colleges to consider the potential implications for the continuity of teaching and learning in the event of interruptions to the supply of power.


It can be difficult, if not impossible, to plan in any detail against a backdrop of so many unknowns, so it may be helpful to adopt a scenario-based methodology.

This can help inform early thinking and test any potential mitigations against a range of potential situations. As well as helping to broaden thinking, such an approach can also help identify measures which might become part of the solution across multiple scenarios, thereby helping to start the process of prioritisation.


Regardless of the approach to planning taken, the clarity of communication of key messages to staff and students – especially the most vulnerable among them – will play a vital role.

One step further towards net zero

Both the rising cost of energy and the threat of interruption add further impetus to the need for all of us to do what we can to reduce energy consumption.

Many organisations will already have plans in place charting their path to net zero, citing a mixture of the large scale and long term, and the practical and immediate. Considering the impact of technology in this mix is crucial

To help members assess and reduce the role of digital tech in climate change, in June, Jisc published its Exploring digital carbon footprints report, which contains tips and advice, which may also play a small but significant role in reducing the overall burden on energy supplies.

In the words of the well-known proverb, it often pays to ‘hope for the best, but prepare for the worst’ and this feels like particularly sensible advice for us all right now.

About the author

Steve Bailey
Steve Bailey
Head of advice

I head up Jisc's advice team, incorporating subject and community specialists. We cover everything from creating self-service advice and guidance and running public training courses to developing communities of practice and providing direct support to our customers. All of which combine to deliver practical, effective and innovative solutions to universities and colleges.

It is my role to ensure the effective operation of the team, to make sure that it is closely embedded with the rest of Jisc and that we are delivering solutions to our customers that make a genuine and demonstrable difference.