At risk: higher education’s electronic brain

The UK university sector’s digital network is unique in the world. It’s not just cost-efficient for subscribers but priceless, says Martin Hall

February 12, 2015

By 2016 Jisc will give institutions savings of about 16 times their average subscription contribution

The UK is the only country with a fully integrated digital network that connects all its universities and colleges. But the success of this electronic brain is now, paradoxically, posing a threat to its future.

The JANET network, relaunched in 2013 with the staggering speed of two terabytes per second, serves more than 600 institutions and 18 million users. Those institutions own JANET’s parent organisation, Jisc, which is now an autonomous organisation funded by a combination of grants, income from services and institutional subscriptions.

But in 2017 institutions will no longer be obliged to maintain their subscriptions. They may choose instead to opt out, making short-term cost savings by buying internet access and basic services from commercial suppliers, and reasoning that they will still get access to growing volumes of open resources such as curriculum materials, open access publications and publicly available digital data banks.

If this were to happen, the value of universal membership of the same network would be lost. Learning and teaching are bound to suffer because, within a few years, all curriculum materials – whether used in classrooms or for online learning – will be in the cloud. Hence, learner analytics, such as how students use resources and how they work with one another, will be central to providing individualised support, evaluation and assessment. An individual institution’s analytics will have value and credibility only if they are benchmarked against a national database – which will be far more difficult to achieve without universal buy-in to JANET.

In addition, international learning is moving into a new and more mature phase of flexible provision, with combinations of student mobility, branch campuses, small overseas offices and wide-ranging forms of face-to-face teaching and online collaboration. Many of these initiatives will be based on collaborations and consortia, and all will require sophisticated, reliable and secure digital solutions. Commercial digital innovations, such as location-intelligent mobile devices, will also require digital infrastructure that keeps pace with them. For most universities and colleges, these solutions will be unaffordable without shared innovation and implementation.

Another important consideration is the rise of big data. In its influential Science as an Open Enterprise report, the Royal Society notes that in fields such as epidemiology, economics and climate change, the ability to trawl very large sets of primary data, metadata and publications is enabling new ways of shaping and testing hypotheses. These new methodologies are linked to digitally enabled survey and data collection techniques: forms of crowdsourcing that outperform traditional methods of data collection by orders of magnitude. Again, managing, accessing and analysing these very large datasets will depend on an integrated, high-performing network uncluttered by paywalls and other unnecessary access controls.

Then there is the money question. By 2016, the “new” Jisc will provide its subscribing institutions with combined cost and efficiency savings of about £200 million per year, or about 16 times their average subscription contribution. In addition to these cost benefits, JANET also offers a high level of data security to both individual institutions and their shared databases. Given the importance of university-based research in the increasingly competitive knowledge economy, cybersecurity will become an ever-greater concern.

So why would colleges and universities be tempted not to buy into all this? Digital networks are evaluated for their speed and efficiency. The hourglass icon is the enemy, and the loss of connectivity is a catastrophe. This means that the better the service, the more its mechanics and paraphernalia fade from view – and the more their crucial importance slips the mind, making the expenditure seem unnecessary.

But nothing about the internet is really free. The kind of provision that is essential for all colleges and universities requires massive intermediation, whether in specialised digital kit or in human expertise. To ensure UK higher education’s digital brain continues to function, this paradox must be seen for what it is, and all of JANET’s institution owners must maintain their subscriptions.

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