Changes to the way higher education is funded mean that the UK could be “sleepwalking into disaster” with regard to the sector’s information technology provision, a report has warned.
Jisc, the higher education sector’s main technology body, is shifting from a centrally funded model to one in which universities will pay a subscription to access services and, according to a Higher Education Policy Institute report, the change will pose a number of challenges.
Jisc: A Hidden Advantage for Higher Education, written by Martyn Harrow, chief executive of Jisc, warns that the transition poses a number of potential obstacles for the organisation – particularly if policymakers and institutions fail to recognise the value it generates.
“At this the very moment when our historic investment in digital is perhaps at its most valuable, when we should be looking to the future and seeking to build on our current advantage, an unfortunate combination of circumstances means that instead we could face sleepwalking into disaster by losing the world-leading infrastructure we already have,” the report warns.
It adds that by reducing the budgets of the funding councils while institutions benefit from additional tuition fee income, the government has “shifted an element of the responsibility for funding services from central bodies to individual institutions”.
This could cause several problems, it states. First, “short-term decision-making” could lead to disintegration, as some universities choose not to subscribe, hitting Jisc’s income; second, institutions could look to “unbundle” the Jisc offer by continuing to receive some services but looking elsewhere for others; and third, as competition in higher education increases, “there is a risk that Jisc’s collaborative approach looks outdated” and that universities forget the benefits to be reaped by collective action – including a reported £200 million annual saving from current shared infrastructure.
Speaking in a Times Higher Education podcast, Professor Harrow said that although some of the wording in the document appeared “slightly apocalyptic”, he felt very confident that the change in funding model would be a success.
“We just need to have the dialogue in the sector,” he said, to “get a mature debate going” about the vital role played by Jisc.
Nick Hillman, director of Hepi, added that the government had not previously had to worry about IT infrastructure in universities because it had “generally worked well”.
“Jisc’s achievements, which often take place off the radar, are in stark contrast to other big [government] IT projects, which have typically been over budget, late and not fit for purpose,” he said. “In the rear-view mirror, Jisc’s history looks comparatively smooth, but the road ahead is bumpy and laden with obstacles. The best way to address those challenges is to recognise the benefits of collective provision for individual institutions and the education sector as a whole.”
Under the new funding model, about 20 per cent of Jisc’s costs will be met directly by subscribing higher education institutions. The rest will still be met by its core investors, including the funding councils. From 2014 to 2017, subscription is mandatory, but after that institutions may be allowed to decide whether or not to continue to pay towards the package of products and services.