JISC 10: Plenary

The JISC 2010 conference takes place during a period of considerable change. While there are large potential budget cuts on the horizon, the ever-expanding digital world also offers wide opportunities for integrated learning. After a good-humoured introduction to the “umpteenth JISC conference – and the first one held in London this century” from Malcolm Read, Executive Secretary, JISC, both speakers (JISC chair Tim O’Shea and Martin Bean, Vice Chancellor of the Open University) gave talks that contained optimism for the present and future, but came mixed with warnings about the challenges ahead.

Tim O’Shea focused in on “what a difference” a year can make. He said that at times it’s been like living through a Spaghetti Western – namely, The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. The good being the new JISC strategy document and plan for the future, the bad the funding cuts JISC has endured and the ugly the public debt problems looming on the horizon. “The next ten years are going to be difficult,” he said and there’s going to have to be some hard thinking about what JISC does and what it invests in.

On a brighter note, he pointed out that we have solid objective evidence of what JISC has done. He highlighted links with institutions and their effective impact, the savings of £12 for every £1 spent thanks to JISC’s work in an advisory capacity, the £43million a year saving generated by JISC’s content licensing work and the millions of people who use the Janet network.

He said that we now need to work to maximise value – and show clear ways that JISC can address key concerns, support research and help institutions save money.

On closing he offered delegates the advice that they make sure they go back from today’s conference with a clear notion of one new thing they are going to implement.

Martin Bean opened by acknowledging that “it’s a terrible thing to be upbeat to people in the UK in the early morning,” but made a point of kicking the conference off on a good note.

First, he gave  a few thoughts about what higher education could and should look like:


  • Globalisation – 200 million plus students study outside their home country every year.
  • Massification – The world can not build enough brick and mortar institutions. There is going to be more distance learning and HE has to become a lifelong experience rather than something just for 18-21 year olds.
  • Privatisation –  We need to work out the role of the private provider: 1 in 3 students in the world is now educated in a private institution, so it’s coming whether you like it or not.

Collective challenges

  • We need to educate citizens for new types of work.
  • STEM is key for a competitive workforce and an innovation economy.
  • We need to make sense of information and transform it into meaningful knowledge. There  are important trust issues relating to Wikipedia and online resources and libraries need to spend as much time teaching students what content to value as well as how to find content.
  • Learning in the workplace needs to become integral.
  • We need to deal with a crisis of relevance. We need to ask what is the student experience like/ worth? In the US 28% of students think that the quality of their experience is relevant to their lives … Many students have never known a world without the web, SMS, etc. They need constant stimulation.

Relating to this last point,  Martin highlighted the mismatch between the assessment and exams universities offer and what employers and students actually want. He said that if fees increase, students are going to want something more closely tailored to their needs and expectations – and that involves making use of the kind of tech that forms an intergral part of their lives. “And they’d be right!” he noted. “We need to find a balance to blend digital lifestyles and digital work styles.”

He then asked how we can use to technology to break down these barriers, and how informal learning can meet formal learning, following on with examples of the kind of work that the Open University is doing. He pointed out in particular the wide reach of the Open University (eg reaching 210 million people via the BBC or passing 16 million downloads on iTunes university) and the value  this free content brings in terms of prestige and attracting people to take up OU courses.

Following on from that, Martin asked us to imagine a world where millions of informal learners are involved with HE and can be moved into institutional accreditation. “Lifelong learners need to be able to move in and out of HE formally and informally.” He also gave the warning that if we don’t get comfortable with that kind of scenario it’s going to get more and more difficult to compete.