Thoughts on the HEFCE Review of JISC

So the long awaited (well by me anyway!) review of JISC by Sir Alan Wilson was published this week. To be honest I was expecting a little more noise from my corner of the web about it – alot of people have been conspicuous by their absence as far as discussions online are concerned and while I understand that JISC employees are probably choosing to stay tight lipped I remain surprised that so many others are as well.

Before I comment on the Review I guess it is worth stating my relationship with JISC for the record. While I am no longer an employee and haven’t been for several months now I do remain a close friend of many JISC people both within the Executive and the Services. I also continue to believe that JISC are a *good* thing and while I don’t always agree with their direction of travel (in fact sometimes I am downright befuddled by it) I believe they do important work.

There were a couple of things I liked about the report. The idea of a more powerful ‘board’ backed by advisory committees with no actually financial responsibility rather than the current sub-committee structure seems like a step in the right direction. I’ve tended to think the way the sub-committees work(ed) has become a bureaucratic impediment over the years and has made it difficult for the organisation to act with the agility and pace it needs to in order to really be innovative – alongside this I’ve never really been convinced it added the ‘collegiate’ community aspect that was the intention either.

The general theme of simplification is also really a no-brainer. I’ve been involved with JISC pretty constantly since 2003 in a variety of roles and have a pretty good understanding of what goes on there but at no point would I have said I really grasped the full scope of what was happening – or really even came close. Thing is I bet I’ve got a better understanding than most despite that.

Less Services isn’t going to be easy but I think it is probably a good idea – many of them provide interesting or useful products or guidance but how many of them have the kind of audience or impact that justifies them? Not enough I’d suggest. I’d love to be proved wrong though.

Something I am neutral on but find intriguing is the idea of JISC coming out from the safety of HEFCEs coat tails and becoming an independent organisation. In many ways this seems to represent a real opportunity – especially the idea of perhaps bring things like Collections and Janet back into the fold for a kind of SuperJISC. That said losing the protection of HEFCE is risky and the idea of becoming a membership organisation would be a difficult transition (as well as step on the toes of ALT, UCISA, SCONUL etc?).

There are two elements of the review that I had an immediate and lasting negative reaction to though.

One is the idea that JISC funds too many small projects and should consolidate funding into fewer larger pots. I personally think this is wrong headed in the extreme! I accept that these smaller projects are hard to recruit for at institutions and sustainability is an issue but at a time when even the UK Government is seeing the value in the concept of skunk works and building small, innovative project teams it seems foolhardy for JISC to move away from this model. I’ve always felt that alot of the cultural change that JISC seeks to implement comes about by the constant seeding of these smaller projects and the groundswell they create rather than the top down approach of influencing senior managers who for the most part just don’t get what JISC is pitching.

Related to this is the idea that JISC funding should be focused on the current concerns of institutions (evidenced by things like the UCISA list). I understand where this is coming from but I also felt JISC should be identifying potential solutions to tomorrows problems not todays.

Finally the thing I felt most uncomfortable was the seeming dismissal of JISCs support of the ‘open’ agenda as being ‘controversial’. This smacked of publisher influence and made me a little sad.

In all my time at JISC is was the commitment of the organisation to this wider agenda that I was always most proud of. The founding of OSS Watch, the work with people like Creative Commons, supporting the uptake of open standards, the hugely successful OER work and of course the ongoing work around the Open Access movement made JISC, in my opinion, hugely important players in these vital issues (which I tend to group together in my thinking about the ‘open web’). The need for a strong advocate on these issues is clear – publishers and vendors have been holding institutions to ransom in recent years and JISC has worked hard to combat this. Any ‘horizon scanning’ which didn’t have this as a key element would fail the higher education and research communities as far as I’m concerned.

So many of my beliefs about the (open) web were founded during my time at JISC thanks to the opportunities I was given and the amount of doors that were opened up to me just by being a member of JISC that I’ll always be supportive of the organisation no matter what direction it goes in but I think my support would wane considerably if ‘open’ was off the table.


  1. I agree, especially with your points about small projects and Open Source/Access.

    My personal view is that small projects do seem to give more bang for your buck. The rapid innovation and jisclms are good examples. I’ve seen a number of larger projects with higher funding that seem to have less ‘impact’ than many of projects on those programes.

    With the open source/access, I find it odd. It’s like suggesting the NHS should not be promoting giving up smoking. (yes, publishers/tobacco companies loose out). Open Standards are a win win, make it easier to change systems without affecting how they interact with other services, and simply mean they *can* interact with other services, more and more important as users want to do everything for Uni portals and mobile apps. And the benefit of academics and the public being able to access research papers easier really should not be controversial.

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