Sarah Porter welcomed Dr John Selby from HEFCE (for PowerPoint presentation click here – Dr John Selby keynote).
JS: It is so stimulating to be here, and I’m really glad that I’ve been invited to be here until tomorrow. One of the things that is important for me in my position is to get a sense of what is happening on the ground.
I became acting director and then director at HEFCE in 2006, and was told, “You’re also responsible for JISC.” I asked why, and was told that it was something that nobody else wanted or understood, and it gave me a bit of breadth. I had a lot of learning to do. I didn’t know anything about JISC. But I discovered quite quickly that people are using the term “community” when they refer to JISC. I think it’s the only place in higher education where the term is used so much, so frequently. At HEFCE we talk about the “sector” or “education”. Communities are, of course, very positive things. You share things. You feel at one with the other.
But if you’re not in the community or you’re a newcomer to the community, the concept of what a community is and whether you’re a part of it, it’s important to think about the way forward for JISC.
I was also told that JISC is wonderful; it’s a unique invention; it’s hugely successful; your job is to let it get on with things.
That’s where I started from. The world has changed, though. It’s still true that JISC is wonderful and that it’s hugely impressive. It’s been a privilege to take that on. But what I want to talk about it how JISC sits in the wider education environment, what the challenges are for the community, and what HEFCE can contribute and how we can work together.
The first thing to say about JISC is that it’s a committee. It’s one of the very striking things – in fact, JISC doesn’t exist. It’s not a corporate body. It’s a committee of its funders. Ron Cooke has been wonderful as chairman, and I want to record my gratitude to him. He always jokes that nobody would have invented something like JISC – a virtual organisation. The other thing that’s important is that JISC is UK-wide. That’s interesting and complicated, and has become increasingly complicated. It’s funded by HE and FE and increasingly others outside of the FE world. Funding ultimately comes from government. On one level, JISC gets a top-slice off the sector; it’s an identified stream of funding, and accountability must recognise that. JISC is top-down and bottom-up; HEFCE are a funding council, and people think you run things when you have money, but we know in HE nothing can be further from the truth. We only employ 240 people, and we can’t control the budget even if we wanted to and even if the sector would let us. The relationship between central strategy and innovation coming up from the bottom is an issue we face all of the time. Getting that balance right is quite difficult. It applies not just to national organisations but within higher education institutions. How does all of this work that is going on in the “basement” of the organisation spread? JISC innovates in ICT on behalf of its funders,and it operates in changing national and political contexts. That’s a huge change since JISC was established – devolution. It raises questions about the model of JISC, and the intention of economies of scale, but we’re increasingly seeing different sectors and different countries saying what they want done for them. That’s what happens when you have devolution of government.
You’ve also got very complex systems of government in HE and FE. You operate as innovators in a very complex political environment, and the other really big political environment is of course the changing economic climate in which we’re now working. It is going to significantly change the way in which the British economy works, how HE is funded, and will make things much more difficult in the future. The last decade has been a golden era in terms of the security of funding and growth of HE. People have got used to that and assumed it was going to go on. It’s a real challenge. It will ripple through to all of you in some quite significant ways.
For those of you who don’t know, HEFCE is the funding council for England. Understanding the finances of JISC is complex, but we remain the largest single funder. As a result of that, we formally appoint the JISC chair, and we are interviewing the new chair with colleagues from elsewhere. We work with other funders; there’s a steering committee for JISc, which is representatives of funders, which meets before the JISC Board meets, and we attend the JISC Board. The Secretariat are HEFCE staff, as JISC doesn’t exist. HEFCE has allocated a significant amount of money through the capital programme which has impacted on the kind of things JISC can do.
Innovation as a socio-technical system is a whole body of work. Technology impacts on social systems and vice versa. Similar technologies can be applied in different ways in different organisational contexts. If you want to innovate, you cannot assume they’ll be used and embedded and connected in the same kind of way in different places.
An excellent technical solution won’t work if a social environment isn’t conducive to it, and organisations and poor at learning from experiments and communicating the results of experiments internally. When I was at Coventry University, I was based in the educational development unit in an office building off-campus, with two open-plan offices at each end. I was in an office in the middle, at one end were the outreach people, and at the other end were the educational developers. The model was to say how our education can reach out to people, and how we have some technology to help us do this, and we thought putting people in the same office might be helpful. Don’t you believe it. I used to go to the outreach people and they’d dismiss ideas as “techie stuff”; the developers wouldn’t think about who’d use the technology and how. It was a while ago, but I don’t think those ideas have gone. What we’re looking at here is the innovation process, then the implementation process, then change in the sector.
One of the things I have to say to you is while I understand now about some of what you all do and how significant and valuable it is, there are people in government and in the sector who don’t. Part of my job is to explain JISC to those people, and part of your job is to help me do that. The way in which I’ve been doing it is by telling them how wonderful things are, and scaring them about what the world might be like if they didn’t have JISC.
I talk to them about access management and security issues and the dangers they face as institutions. I talk about some of the new stuff that’s going on. I’m interested in the area of sustainable computing – you can frighten people like vice-chancellors, but also enthuse them. IT is using around 2% of all of the energy in the advanced world. That’s growing fast. Nobody’s thinking about switching their computers off. There are huge potential savings for institutions – one vice-chancellor told me they’d just opened a new computing building with super-computers, and they reckon 25% of their energy goes through there. One other area is government identified Islamic studies as a strategic subject, and the Digi-Islam project at the University of Exeter is digitising materials for students and scholars.
Going back, we’ve seen innovation embedded, with JISC’s role critically important. We’ve seen the work in access management. There’s work that senior management might not know about, but they’d notice if it wasn’t there. Some other areas close to my role in widening participation is the distributed e-Learning programme, and the way in which that’s enabled regional collaboration.
What does this all mean for us? Many of you are working at the periphery. Some of you are embedded. Some are better connected to other institutions. Some of you may not have met your vice-chancellor or principal. Your community is a slightly different community than the community I try and deal with. Mine is government, the other funders, BECTA, the sectors. What can you do to support the work I do, and vice versa?
First, think about the users. Think about the increasing diversity of users. Think not just about your bit of the community, but whether some of those issues can spill over into other ways of sharing knowledge, and connecting learning, teaching and research.
Speak beyond the community. It’s easy to talk to people who understand your language, to people who are on your side. You can have a conversation where you know what you’re talking about. You need to communicate to people outside the community. If you can start doing that on the ground, that would be really helpful for us.
Remember the changing political context. Your enthusiasm is something that is very strong in the JISC community. It is not something that can be taken for granted. During economic recession, people cease to invest in things they should invest in.
What can we do? We need to be clearer about our strategy. I think it’s fair to say that we’ve not been clear enough about that, and JISC have tended to pick bits of our strategy and responded to them without a prioritisation coming from us. We have to make sure sector-wide bodies such as Learning and Skills Councils have an understanding of what JISC can do, and we have to engage with government, across the DCSF and the DIUS.
I think together we can support change in HE and FE. What I bring to you is a huge sense of gratitude and congratulation and admiration of what you’ve done and what you might achieve. We must work harder to secure innovation in HE.
Some feedback on the session: [youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nugj9vZtl0k[/youtube][youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vqeKnnna7aM[/youtube]