University Health Network teaches Microsoft a lesson

A dispute over the status of off-campus labs has the UHN in a software showdown.

When is an educator not an educator? When he or she works in a research lab not physically linked to university grounds – at least according to Microsoft.

The software giant boasts that it believes “education is a fundamental human right,” not to mention “the single most important investment in the future of individuals, communities, the nation and the world.” And because it believes the “true heroes in education are educators and students,” the company offers deep discounts on its commercial software products to educational customers. But recent developments have educators at the University Health Network, a group of Ontario teaching hospitals with 3,500 students, questioning Microsoft’s stated commitment to education.

It all stems from an unexpected decision by the software firm to reclassify UHN’s so-called off-site users as non-educational customers, which is forcing the removal of Microsoft products from educational computers.

UHN officials are quick to point out that Microsoft hasn’t directly ordered any software removed. But internal documents show the educational health network has been thrown for an IT loop that affects about 1,600 individuals, ranging from scientists and support staff to students and trainees. Indeed, according to a memo issued by Christopher Paige, UHN’s vice-president of research, Microsoft recently reviewed the group’s software licensing tier and determined educators and students not working on university grounds no longer qualify for an educational discount that has been enjoyed across UHN for years. As a result, “all existing Microsoft software licenses” at UHN research labs “will be invalidated,” impacting “nearly all” research computers.

Under educational pricing, UHN’s research department paid approximately 10% of the retail price for Microsoft products. The company now wants it to pay $400 per computer to purchase new licenses based on public-sector pricing, which represents a fivefold increase.

Cynthia Keeshan, Microsoft Canada’s public relations director, declined to comment on client affairs, but she insisted the company is “working with the UHN to help them meet their needs,” and suggested nothing has been finalized.

According to Paige’s memo, however, UHN has “argued strenuously” against the decision, with no hope of appeal. Research staff have been advised to “investigate” open-source products because the budget is already stretched.

Gillian Howard, UHN’s head of public affairs, is at a loss to explain Microsoft’s position. “University Health Network,” she notes, “is fully affiliated with the University of Toronto and is an educational institution which teaches across all the health disciplines and across a variety of faculties of U of T. All of our investigators in research have students in their laboratories and teach at the undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate level. We are an educational institution.”

Meanwhile, UHN researchers call Microsoft “ridiculous,” noting the company, unlike UHN, is supposed to generate profits, not push customers toward freeware, or pirated software, which isn’t uncommon among educational users. “Is that really what the company wants?” asks one outraged UHN scientist.