Sir Timothy O'Shea is the new chair of the universities' national computing network, the Joint Information Systems Committee (Jisc), some 40 years after being among the first cohort of pupils to take an A level in computing science. Professor O'Shea, principal of the University of Edinburgh, succeeds Sir Ron Cooke, former vice-chancellor of the University of York.
Professor O'Shea has been a computer scientist throughout his career. He took a BSc in mathematics and experimental psychology from the University of Sussex, followed by a PhD in computer-based learning at the University of Leeds. He then worked as a researcher in the US and the UK, including a research fellowship in the 1970s in Edinburgh's department of artificial intelligence.
"The change is quite staggering," he said, reminiscing that a key problem at Edinburgh had been the threat of systems crashing every time a bus went past the lab. But he added that the advances in computers' abilities were not as dramatic as they might seem to laypeople.
"I've been programming computers for 43 years and once you understand the basic principles, what's happening isn't that surprising," he said. "What has surprised people is the speed with which powerful computers and bandwidth have become cheap."
Some 30 years ago, Professor O'Shea and his colleagues were familiar with the applications to be found today on a wi-fi laptop, including email - the difference being that no individual could have afforded the hardware. He has always promoted the use of computers to expand educational opportunities. At The Open University, where he held a personal chair in information technology and education, he founded the computer-assisted learning research group.
Professor O'Shea described Jisc (best known for providing the joint academic computer network JANET) as "a national treasure", saying it was a major source of competitive advantage over universities in other countries.
"It was the bean counters and the techies working together that put us into this position," he said. The universities accepted top-slicing of their funding to establish a national network that is more powerful and effective than one covering only a few institutions.
"I've not seen the same thing happen in other national systems," Professor O'Shea said. "Working to bring Jisc's benefits to as wide a group as possible will be an ongoing concern of mine."
This does not mean expanding into other sectors. "Jisc is not a commercial internet service provider, it's a community. It's not a question of capturing users," he said.