Jisc has served FE colleges well for 25 years – from the infancy of the world wide web to the explosion of the internet across all aspects of society. As we know, Jisc’s services to FE are currently the focus of discussion, since the government announced its intention to introduce a subscription-based model.
It’s not that the services were ever provided "free". Successive government departments responsible for FE provided a block grant that covered the cost centrally. This is about to change, with colleges expected to pay an annual subscription and fees calculated on an income-based model.
Such a model will, as it currently stands, disproportionately hit Collab Group members. Consequently, we are taking the opportunity to gather information so that we can reflect on our individual and collective requirements and identify a baseline service according to usage to consider whether to test the market for a like-for-like comparison.
Now, it may be that the soothsayers who have been arguing recently for the status quo to remain may be right, but they may also be adversely influenced by the "fear of finding something worse". Unfortunately, the IT world is prone to hype – who remembers the millennium bug when the world was going to crash around us? That did not happen, but a lot of energy and cost was expended on the perceived threat.
What is not in dispute is that digital skills are recognised as increasingly important and that "being digital" is now non-negotiable. The development of digital skills is a key element in T levels and there is an increased focus on digital alongside maths and English in Ofsted’s common inspection framework.
In a wider context, digital transformation is becoming the leitmotif of the discourse around economic policy and the UK’s ambitions to be a world-leading digitally driven economy as set out in the government’s 2017 Digital Strategy. Colleges are working with employers from all sectors to ensure that learners develop occupationally relevant digital skills.
What the early findings from our work with Collab Group colleges indicate is that it is the connectivity service that features highest in terms of usage – with services such as content and collaboration tools way behind. Colleges are reporting patchy use of online content – not altogether surprising given the plethora of free content and communication tools now available – for example, Khan Academy and the high-quality online resources in Moocs such as FutureLearn.
So, what if we went to the market with a specification based on colleges’ needs rather than passively accepting the current package of services? Let’s consider for a moment some of the recent media coverage focusing on the dangers and threats if Jisc were not covering our backs in terms of cybersecurity.
Having worked in the technology sector for over eight years, I do not question the importance of cybersecurity and the need for a fast, secure and reliable network, but I do find myself asking the question, "How do other organisations navigate these threats without Jisc services to guide them – such as the Ministry of Defence, HMRC, the Department for Work and Pensions, banks, hospitals and major businesses?" The reality is that many of these companies are served by the same bandwidth carriers that Jisc uses as this pipeline forms our national digital infrastructure.
So, I’d like to propose some questions as we navigate the proposed changes.
Questions to consider
- If it is clear that connectivity is the number one requirement, should we not unbundle this from the total package and see what comes from testing the market?
- There is never a one size fits all answer to content – no one textbook that covers the range of learning required. Should we not be encouraging lecturers and learners to develop their digital skills by critically reviewing the wealth of free online content?
- There is a consensus about the need for cybersecurity to safeguard systems, staff and learners. What are colleges already doing in this area in addition to the Jisc offer – for example, web filtering, firewalls? Is your college paying for its own cybersolutions and, if so, is there a danger of duplicate expenditure?
- Given our digital experience has now moved to a truly converged experience of voice, media and internet, should we not test the water of those suppliers who lead in these areas and not limit ourselves to the academically focused practices of Jisc, which operates a one-size-fits-all solution to both the HE and FE communities?
The discussion that Collab Group is having with its members is intended to consider these questions to ensure the best possible outcome for colleges, their learners, employers and communities. In times of fiscal pressures, we need to broker new partnerships with industry partners and use the scale of our sector to secure the best possible deal for our colleges. Now it may be that Jisc will do that for us and that will be good – or, maybe the future lies in our hands?
Ian Pretty is chief executive of the Collab Group of colleges