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December 06, 2010

The future of JISC

As is the case with many public agencies at the moment, the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) is currently under review. For those readers not in the UK, the JISC represents the national investment in technology development and infrastructure for the UK higher and further education sector.  Effectively, the organisation is divided into two parts; the JANET, which provides universities and colleges with dedicated Internet connections; ‘everything else,’ which includes strategic development funding, advice, guidance, resource discovery and regional support.  Very simplistically, the JISC costs under £100million per year and supports an academic community of around 200,000 researchers and 6 million students. The first thing to say is that in my view, this already equates to value for money.

The review will no doubt have a number of options from the sedentary to the shocking:

  1. Do nothing.
  2. Split JISC in half and make JANET compete with Virgin, BT etc for ISP status.
  3. Stop funding exploratory projects.
  4. Intervene in the top-slice from universities that funds JISC and share the cash by institution.
  5. Reduce the level of funding and do less.
  6. Remove the funding and cease everything.
  7. Increase the funding and do more.
The unnerving aspect to this list of options is that, in my opinion any of these are possible. There seems to be an almost manic rush to make universities more ‘independent’ of government at the moment. We are told this is a good thing – we are being set free from the shackles of Westminster and Whitehall. Well, yes. However, with less central funding come fewer incentives to collaborate and the consequences of that are – we are weaker nationally.

In almost every country I have delivered conference presentations, in North America and Europe, the common response is, ‘I wish we had a JISC.’ In the full flight of a Central Spending Review it is easy to take a short-term view. That view would be any of numbers 1 to 6 above.

I’m not saying that everything JISC has done has been right, or worth it. Only most of what it has done. There has been too much investment in the technology to support institutional repositories and not enough effort in the political momentum required to fill them (at least until recently). There have been times when a technology initiative aimed to support institutions as varied as remote small FE colleges and Cambridge University have become diluted by trying to please everyone. There have been interventions by JISC on professional areas of practice outside their remit, such as the necessary complexity of delivering large-scale printed research collections alongside digital environments.  They do have a habit of defining the future purely as digital.

However, these issues are miniscule in comparison to what they get right. Everyone in Europe and elsewhere knows this. I only hope that the current review reflects on what might be lost if JISC is lost.

My concern is as the student fees debate rages and Government forces universities to raise their own funding direct from students, other national strategies will also fall. How will JISC be funded if universities by default act more independently? No other part of what we might term ‘the national effort’ would be expected to operate without national systems and shared strategic development – health, military, police, security, government. Universities are part of that effort and to other countries it is obvious that the UK has, through JISC been able to act efficiently (for the most part) and in the national benefit.

JISC’s acronymic nomenclature could more powerfully be expanded to represent ‘Joining Institutions in Strategic Collaboration.’

Option 7 is the strongest choice for our long-term gain. Choosing it would state the Government’s belief in the contribution made by and the future of UK higher education.

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