Jisc’s battle for Britain’s shared IT services: the beginning of the end?

Martyn Harrow channels Winston Churchill over ‘climacteric’ challenge of next spending review

March 26, 2015

The “bet is off” on UK higher education’s main technology body Jisc definitely continuing beyond the next government spending review, according to its chief executive.

Martyn Harrow also reached for Winston Churchill’s wartime rhetoric to describe the spending review – likely to take place soon after the next government takes office – as the next pivotal “climacteric” facing the organisation.

But he argued that Jisc was “probably the most successful shared service yet” in higher education and said that scrapping it would leave the UK university sector with £250 million in costs immediately that they would need to fund from somewhere else. Jisc’s services include a high-speed computer network and data storage.

Jisc recently began a shift to a new funding model, under which about 20 per cent of its costs will be paid directly by subscribing higher education institutions. The rest will be met by bodies including the UK’s funding councils.

Professor Harrow said that after a Higher Education Funding Council for England consultation on behalf of funders about the subscription system, the organisation had been “mandated for a period through to 2017-18”.

The assumption had been that the “mandate would be seen through, that agreement would be seen through”, he continued. “I think the way things are looking we’re assuming that bet is off, to some degree, at this stage.”

Professor Harrow said that the challenge for Jisc was about recognising that the spending review “is going to be pretty impactful and that we will need to navigate that and position Jisc as an opportunity…for the sector to respond and surmount some of those challenges”.

And here is where Churchill, who was fond of describing turning points such as the Battle of Britain and Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union as “climacterics”, comes in.

Asked if there was a chance that Jisc could be axed after the next spending review, which may further cut budgets for the funding councils, Professor Harrow replied: “I wouldn’t express it like that. I see it as the next – Churchillian word – climacteric that we need to navigate.

“And I really do see this positively: to be able to articulate to the sector that we can see part of the solution and that we think working with [it] we can actually help [it] navigate these financial challenges.”

Professor Harrow said that recent developments that have improved cost-effectiveness for the sector include the JANET 6 network, which aims to equip universities to deal with the high bandwidth needs of researchers, and Jisc’s shared data centre initially serving a consortium of six scientific and academic organisations in the UK.

Professor Harrow also pointed to Jisc’s having secured reduced prices for universities and researchers for services from companies such as Google, Microsoft and Amazon.

JANET delivers “uncontested bandwith access to those services”, he said, adding that if universities “were in a situation of trying to access those services across the public internet, for high throughput computing, with [having] to pay for it at commercial rates – it’s a completely different scenario”.


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