A review of Jisc’s impact

We’re long overdue a review of Jisc.

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Not – I hasten to add – because there’s something going perilously wrong with the sector’s technology experts.

It’s more a timing thing – historically we’ve seen a proper root-and-branch strategic review about once every 11 years. We had the A new approach review back in 1999, and the Wilson review in 2010 – the first of these kicking off a dash to development, the second a retrenchment in services rather than projects and a rationalisation of some of the more exploratory stuff.

Today’s publication is not a review like that – instead we get a classic economic benefits analysis, performed on Jisc’s behalf by masters of the form Frontier Economics. As such, you wouldn’t really expect it to say much more than how marvellous and cost effective the organisation is – and that is pretty much what we get.

For every £1 of investment Jisc gets (primarily from OfS, Research England, DfE, and the devolved funding bodies) members receive £3 worth of value – representing savings of around £300m for the higher and further education sectors and a more speculative “wider gross benefit” of Jisc services of between £1.5bn and £2.8bn. Back in 2014 – last time Jisc did this kind of thing – the savings figure was already “over £200m”.

You’ll probably have seen many reports like this coming from various parts of the higher education sector – Universities UK is the one that springs to mind but there are many other examples. But none of this gets us any closer to an answer to the question of what kind of a Jisc we need right now.

Jisc currently runs in excess of 100 services – covering everything from cloud computing procurement to guidance on open access publication. You’d be forgiven for recalling that Wilson called for a far tighter portfolio back in 2010, with numbers of services and projects severely rationalised. He also called for Jisc to be responsive to the sector’s needs – and it looks like the sector needs a lot of services.

Conversely Jisc has historically been keen to support institutional innovations directly, but Wilson (and the way Wilson was interpreted) very much put a stop to that. The upshot here is that Jisc subscribers (pretty much everyone – it’s the only way you get access to the Janet network that connects the sector) get a lot of input into the design and continuation of Jisc services, but that technological innovation these days tends to be something that happens externally to a provider and then bought in.

From the mid-90s through to about 2012 it’s not really an exaggeration to say that Jisc was the higher education sector’s ARPA. Much of the provider and system level architecture we use today including the virtual learning environment, plagiarism detection, and research repositories draws on projects first funded by Jisc and led by staff (academics as often as learning technologists – the invention of the learning technologist again takes in Jisc and the Association for Learning Technology) in universities and colleges. There’s even a case to be made for Jisc having had as much input into the development of the modern internet as some rather better heralded international organisations.

There was a direct link between cutting edge research in networking, information management, and software engineering and the tools that universities ended up using. Universities, with the support of and with funding from Jisc, used to develop and run their own tools and services. Jisc programme meetings, in particular, were a melting pot of learning, support, and what we may call the sharing of good practice: except that “good practice” was something that was still being invented at the time.

Now you could very easily read this as an ex-Jisc employee getting sentimental, but I think that there is perhaps a sense in which we have lost something that it will be difficult to get back. The current Jisc has great leadership, and some superb staff with an astonishing depth of knowledge. The next strategic review, perhaps, will give it (and the sector) the confidence and spirit to create rather than consume technological innovation.

And it’ll once again be much harder to calculate an economic benefit – because it is very hard to do so when you are dealing with real innovation.

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