Learning, teaching, research and administration optimised through shared technology infrastructure at UK universities

Published On: 12 October 2021|

Learning, teaching and administration at universities and higher education centres in the United Kingdom (UK) has been revolutionised during the past quarter of a century– thanks in measure to Jisc, which since 2012 has been known by its acronym, but historically stood for Joint Information Systems Committee.

However, the CoViD-19 pandemic has also emphasised the role that digital technologies play in underpinning the long-term success and sustainability of universities. It forced universities to shift educational delivery online but the question now is how this will lead to a more holistic and synergised approach to the use of digital technologies in the future.

Professor David Maguire (left), Vice-Chancellor at the University of Sussex in the UK, gave valuable insights into Jisc during the University Shared Services: Drivers, Benefits, Success Factors and Challenges session at last week’s Universities South Africa’s 2nd Higher Education Conference, jointly hosted with the Council on Higher Education (CHE).

Jisc’s vision is for the UK to be the most digitally advanced education and research nation in the world. At its heart is the super-fast national research and education network, Janet. Jisc also provides technology solutions and shared services for its members (colleges, universities and research centres) and customers (public sector bodies) and is funded by the UK higher and further education and research funding bodies and member institutions.

While championing the importance and potential of digital technologies for UK education and research, Jisc also:

  • Operates shared digital infrastructure and services
  • Negotiates sector-wide deals with IT vendors and commercial publishers
  • Provides trusted advice and practical assistance for universities, colleges and learning providers.

Its aim is to:

  • Deliver considerable collective digital advantage, financial savings and efficiencies for UK universities, colleges and learning providers
  • Ensure these benefits are sustained and further enhanced
  • Do all this affordably, efficiently and cost effectively.

Explains Maguire: “It is a non-profit organisation that brings together all of the UK universities and colleges, but also some schools and some research and other organisations, to pool their resources to help deal with technology matters through a shared technology infrastructure. Nine hundred staff are employed and the turnover in the last financial year was more than £182 million (R3.7 billion).”

Funding comes from government grants (37 percent), digital resources licensing income (33 percent) and the remainder from service income, subscribers and other grants.

“Its principal function is to enable world-class education and research in the United Kingdom,” says Maguire, “ and it does that by providing excellent infrastructure to run it. It provides advice and guidance on a range of services, and it will build new solutions where there’s a market failure or where it can collaborate with proprietary developers and providers to do that in a more efficient and effective way.”

One of its components is Janet, a high-speed network for the UK research and education community set up to provide computing support for education. It serves 18 million users and is the busiest National Research and Education Network in Europe by volume of data carried.

Explains Professor Maguire: “It is not unlike the Tertiary Education and Research Network of South Africa (TENET). However, it’s very high performance. It has connections up to 600 gigabits per second. And just remember that we normally talk about our home connections being measured in megabits per second. It has direct connections to about 600 organisations to minimise traffic around the network. Every day around 5.3 petabytes of data is pushed around the network. However, it’s not just about routers and devices. It’s also a suite of services which help to enable productivity amongst users in the community.”

He listed some of the key Jisc services:

Cyber security
This is becoming increasingly important. Several million pounds will be spent on behalf of the community to protect the network, the data and people that use it in universities, colleges and schools.

There’s a trend to move data into cloud services that are accessible, independent of location, anywhere on the network. Jisc is advising its members on how to do that and is hosting third-party university data centres in the cloud and building shared services.

Learning analytics
The learning analytics core service pulls together data from an institution’s various student data streams, organises it and translates it into informative visualisations. This guidance helps universities to better understand student engagement, improve teaching and the overall student experience.

Library hub
The national bibliographic knowledge base (NBK) is helping transform how libraries manage their collections, provide access to resources and collaborate with each other and work towards the vision for a national digital library. It’s a national-scale shared service that will include catalogue data from more than 225 academic and specialist libraries. By doing so, it will more effectively support the management of library collections so that they are optimised for contemporary research and learning needs.

Research solutions
It delivers solutions for the research community in terms of research infrastructure beyond the network. So some of the biggest worldwide experiments – such as decoding the genome, quantum physics, the Telescope Array in astronomy – are all enabled by the connectivity in services which Jisc operates. This project resulted in the open research hub – a single interoperable system for managing, preserving and sharing institutional digital research data.

Continued Maguire: “Jisc works with institutions and start-ups to find new edtech products that can benefit the further and higher education sector. Eduroam provides users with authenticated network logon and access to the internet through a single Wi-Fi profile and set of credentials, wherever the service has been made available, by participating organisations. Connection can be seamless and automatic. Wired connections can also be supported.

“It allows universities to save of millions of pounds each year through purchasing collective deals with everything from software to telephony to datasets and journal subscriptions.

“Financial X ray is about helping organisations understand how they’re spending their money in IT to ensure that they’re doing it in the most optimum way. Advise is provided on legal and regulatory use of information, the General Data Protection register, safety and the sensible use of information.”

So what does the future hold?

“Case studies show that Jisc works technically but also financially to everyone’s benefit. There are more and more opportunities for shared services. One of these, in particular, is the idea about expanding into education technology, essentially enabling a whole series of often new and innovative organisations to produce educational technology, and to provide a pathway into universities so that they can be more technically and commercially successful. And, hopefully more and more ingenious and innovative technology, can be used for the benefit of staff and students.

“Three things are emerging – how can we harness the power of artificial intelligence to help with everything from student services to learning and teaching to research? Secondly, everything is going to have an IP address and be accessible on the web. There will be some really sophisticated and integrated computing distributed for the benefit of research and education. And thirdly, there’s going to be big, big data! We’ve already gotten petabytes of data; these are going to grow and we need tools to organise, manage, synthesise and query that data in a more efficient way.

“Jisc has been a successful higher education service provider. It has been able to deliver major return on investment for universities and colleges. Its key challenges are funding, keeping up with the very rapid developments in technology and having the ability and recourses to recruit the world’s best people to run these systems. This is what is required to provide universities with what they need, and deserve, to do great work in the future.”

Janine Greenleaf Walker is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.