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Martyn Harrow (Jisc): We must not lose the benefits of shared infrastructure

  • 23 October 2014

With today’s publication of his HEPI Occasional Paper, Martyn Harrow, the Chief Executive of Jisc, makes the case for universities continuing to share the costs of joint investment in technology infrastructure.

The last few years have not been easy for UK universities. They have had to deal simultaneously with policy uncertainty, technological innovation, greater competition as a result of internationalisation and globalisation, rising expectations from students and of course, new pressures to tighten budgets and get the greatest return from their scarce resources.

These financial pressures have led to further exploration, most notably by Professor Ian Diamond, of where the sector can work together to respond to these financial challenges. Collaborations between universities, such as the agreements the N8 and M5 collaborative groups have put in place to share research infrastructure, have come to prominence.

Jisc, the UK’s expert body for the use of digital technology in education and research, is another example of this shared approach. It does things, such as shared research and innovation and negotiations with technology multinationals, that it makes sense to do on a UK-level once rather than at an institutional level a hundred times over across the country.

Through the solutions we deliver, the journals and other academic literature we procure on behalf of the sector and our world-leading network, used by more than 18 million users in 600 higher and further education institutions across the UK, the sector saves more than £200 million per year in direct savings. The average saving for a research-intensive university is actually approximately £2.5 million per year. The equivalent figure for a post-1992 university is approximately £1.24 million.

I know there is scope for these shared services to be taken even further.

Earlier this year we opened the UK’s first shared data centre for academic and medical research. The centre will allow world-leading research institutions to share sensitive research data as well as saving them money.

On a more conceptual level, we could see the development of the ‘university in a box’– a package of back-office systems, such as for finance and student registration, co-designed and co-developed by the sector for the sector as a shared service. This would lower administration and overhead costs for every institution, mitigate the risks associated with using bespoke unsupported systems and free up resources. Universities could use these newly released resources to improve learning and research.

To date, many of the benefits of Jisc and the UK’s shared digital infrastructure have been taken for granted. In the past Jisc has just been there, part of the furniture of the higher education sector, so there is no frame of reference for assessing the value of what we do. Now, with our underlying funding model fundamentally changing, the infrastructure that we provide, which universities use every single day, is potentially at risk.

My Yellow Paper, which the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) will publish this week, argues that the education sector and policymakers, need to recognise the potential danger that lies ahead for the UK’s shared digital infrastructure and work actively on finding a way – at the lowest reasonable investment cost – to secure the future of this national asset. Settling this uncertainty will enable a renewed focus on maximising the benefit that universities can obtain from digital technology: as a strategic enabler for their own research, for teaching and learning, to improve the student experience, to provide institutional management tools and for competitive positioning.

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