We may face some network problems ahead, Jisc warns

Institutional self-interest could hit infrastructure as central funds shrink. David Matthews reports

August 4, 2011

The IT infrastructure of UK universities could suffer if institutions rather than funding councils are asked to fund new computing projects, the head of Jisc has warned.

Malcolm Read, executive secretary of the sector's IT body, said that as central funding is withdrawn, it could become difficult to convince universities to contribute to new national projects that do not benefit them directly.

A report into Jisc, which is behind the UK's research network JANET, recommended earlier this year that the organisation raise cash from university subscriptions and charges rather than continue to rely solely on dwindling tranches of funding council money.

Under the proposed arrangement, there was a danger that universities would "not be able to afford the sort of innovation work we currently fund", Dr Read said. He also argued that under a subscription model, big universities that invested in new technology might not share it with smaller institutions.

Although he was optimistic about the future of Jisc, he said that there were "grounds for concern that this country won't be as innovative in exploiting IT opportunities".

At present, the organisation's money comes almost entirely from the UK funding councils.

However, capital funding for Jisc fell from £37.5 million in 2007-08 to £.6 million in 2010-11, and Dr Read said he expected the decline to continue.

The review by Sir Alan Wilson, which was released in February, recommended a mixture of grant and subscription funding for Jisc, although it warned that "a subscriptions model might lead to extensive opting-out by institutions".

The most expensive Jisc project in both running and capital costs is JANET, the UK's research network.

Dr Read said that if universities rather than national funding bodies had bankrolled its creation, they might have demanded a less costly, lower-quality network. "With JANET, we know how much money is available and we buy the best possible. It might be a different network if you had to aggregate university demand."

But he added that the changes in funding would allow Jisc to "become closer to the sectors it serves" and "significantly" reduce costs.

Noting that the organisation had already cut its costs and staff numbers by 10 per cent over the past year, Dr Read said: "We expect similar reductions in the future."

Workshops have been run at Jisc to encourage "cultural change" in preparation for the shift to direct funding from universities. "You have to be rather more responsive to the consumer," he said.

David Baker, Jisc's deputy chair and head of its transition group overseeing the changes, said that although no firm decisions had been made on the new financial model, it was likely to be a "mixed economy" of funding council and university money.

The transition group will report in November on how the new model will work.

david.matthews@tsleducation.com.

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