Students and academics protested over the weekend at a planned for-profit consortium of IT companies, led by Microsoft, which would give the suppliers a stranglehold on the California university system.
The California Education Technology Initiative (CETI) is intended to provide low cost computing to the 22 campuses around the state. But critics of the scheme - which is due to be signed off next month - fear that the end result will be that the four suppliers in the consortium will become exclusive providers in the sector.
The four companies - Microsoft, GTE, Fujitsu and Hughes Electronics - will provide financial backing for the scheme - saving the state taxpayers from carrying the cost - but in exchange will have a clear run at a potential $3 billion sales opportunity over the next three years. In 10 years, CETI estimates it will spend $610 million on upgrading systems.
Academic critics argue that allowing profit-making companies to fund computer procurement does not reflect the true needs of the university system.
San Francisco university professor Jerry Eisman said: "Universities are there to serve the educational needs of our students. The interests of the two sides don't always coincide.?
But California university authorities say the deal is the only way to ensure that academic institutions get a sophisticated hi-tech infrastructure for their students.
The proposed deal has attracted so much controversy that the California state legislature will debate the plan at a hearing on 6 January. The consumer advocacy group NetAction has called on California universities to make their protest known to the State Higher Education and Education Budget committee memebers.
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