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Martin Hall, Vice Chancellor, University of Salford

All change at Jisc

Professor Martin Hall tells us how Jisc, the UK'€™s information technology service for HE and FE, has gone from ISP to solutions partner

Posted by Rebecca Paddick | October 24, 2014 | Higher education

Jisc has been around, in one form or another, since the earliest days of the Internet, providing network services for British universities. Now Jisc is undergoing a transformation. As bandwidth becomes a standard utility, Jisc is moving its emphasis to advanced digital solutions with widening fields of applicability. To be relevant, these solutions need to be based on co-design, always looking to the future. 

As its name indicates, Britain’s Joint Information Systems Committee, now Jisc, was spawned in the corridors of bureaucracy. From the early 1970s until the financial meltdown deprived organisations like these of the oxygen of periodic increases in direct funding, Jisc grew with the exciting, unpredictable and chaotic expansion of the Web and its uses, enabling and supporting a wide range of services and applications. These investments and initiatives kept Britain ahead in on-line provision and innovation, resulting in the best intra-university network in the world.

Now, Jisc is undergoing a radical transformation. This is partly because sources of funding have changed. As with a slew of similar organisations, Jisc’s direct funding has been significantly reduced. This has required the move to a subscription model, in which member organizations will pay directly for the services they receive, rather than indirect support through government subsidies to third parties. But Jisc’s transformation is also because the connected world is still evolving. Rather than an optional lifestyle choice, bandwidth and connectively are now a basic utility, like water, electricity and gas. Rather than being predominantly an ISP, Jisc needs also to be a forward-looking solutions organization, working with its customers to anticipate and provide what they need across the full range of education provision. 

Jisc’s best-known asset in the Janet network. This has grown and developed over the decades, with successive upgrades. The most recent capital investment, of more than £20m, has provided Jisc with direct control over the fibre optics that enable the Internet, along with significant capacity for expansion as volumes of digital traffic grow and new applications come online. This network connects Britain’s universities, further education colleges, research councils, specialist colleges and adult and community learning providers. It also supports the Department for Education’s project to build a national schools’ network. Today, there are almost 20 million end users. With over 400 organizations depending on this service, resilience and reliability are essential, as are data storage, access to Cloud services and cyber-security. 

Present and emerging uses of this network point to the kinds of solutions that will be definitive for the future. One example is LoLa (from Low Latency), an application that reduces the lag over the Internet - the hour-glass effect - to less than 10 milliseconds. This is best understood as the limit to the delay in visual and aural communication between professional musicians, playing together; anything more than 10 milliseconds and cues will be missed, damaging the quality of the performance. LoLa has already proved its value and potential across the Janet network in many ways. At my own university in Greater Manchester, we linked up with Edinburg Napier University, with a pianist in Salford and a singer over 200 miles away. They performed a range of complex pieces seamlessly, reading visual cues across the Internet as if they were together on a concert podium. Digital solutions such as these have applications from the arts to advanced manufacturing.

Getting digital solutions such as these right means listening closely to customers and then working with them as co-designers. Jisc trialled its Summer of Student Innovation in 2013 and then the first Digifest in Birmingham earlier this year. Together, they showed how co-design and partnership can work from the current frontiers in digital technology and applications to identify future needs and develop solutions for different parts of the overall education sector.

In the future, Jisc needs to follow its subscriber institutions in looking outwards, beyond the education sector. There is a strong and persistent move to build lasting connections between universities and colleges, and business and industry. This means an environment for innovation and co-production, data sharing, security for intellectual property and easy and effective digital communication and interoperability of systems. The old Jisc model put up firm boundaries between publicly funded and commercial enterprises. And while the integrity of public funding must still be protected, future digital solutions will require the opportunities of partnerships that drive forward a competitive economy and continual improvements to the quality of life. 

Jisc passed a key threshold at the beginning of this year as its new board and organizational structure was launched. The objective now is to maintain and advance Jisc’s strong tradition of quality service while listening hard to the rich and diverse sector Jisc serves; they have some very interesting things to say.

Martin is currently Vice Chancellor of the University of Salford in Manchester and chair of the board of Jisc, the United Kingdom’s information technology service for higher and further education (www.jisc.ac.uk). 

Before joining Salford in 2009, Martin was Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of Cape Town (from 2002-2008) and the inaugural Dean of Higher Education Development at UCT (from 1999-2002). He is Emeritus Professor and Life Fellow at the University of Cape Town, a Fellow of the Royal Society of South Africa, a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and a Fellow of the Royal Society for Arts.

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