We need to talk about Jisc

Jisc has been a huge part of my personal and professional development. Jisc offers us access to a wealth of expertise and has created networks of professionals that would otherwise be unlikely to exist. But in the last year or so, I have begun to worry about what Jisc is becoming.

Like all things in the public sector, Jisc are having to reduce their costs and align to other external priorities. Which is likely one of the main reasons for the change in the organisation that are visible to those who work closest with it, and rely on it.

Let me be very clear. This is not an attack on the individuals who work in Jisc who, in my experience, are extremely dedicated, hard working and knowledgeable. They continue to work to aid the sector but like all of us, they are subject to the priorities and values of their employer. When they change, they must change with it.

We are not blameless either. For years we greedily lapped up their funding and, more often than not, did very little of value with it. We took and took and took. We benefited from their experience, from their networks and their prominence.

I was one of these of people. I have benefited from their free pilots, their development programmes, from their free visits and most of all, from their expertise. I have taken everything I can and given nothing back.

The irony is, we’ve taken everything we can get but the minute Jisc asked us to pay for some stuff, we lost our sh*t. We became so used to taking from them. “But Jisc stuff has always been free” we exclaimed. “Where’s the funding? Surely, there’s some funding? Won’t somebody think of the funding?” we cried. I defended Jisc when they began charging for a VERY worthwhile development programme. I have no problem with that and Jisc should be able to charge a reasonable amount for this aspect of their work.

They have now moved in to being a service provider and charging for those services and this is where I become troubled.

Jisc has some…interesting…partnerships with vendors.

Jisc feels like a vendor.

If you want to know how I feel about vendors, read this.

Take for instance, the Digital Capability tool. I used it, read about that here, and found it useful. We raised some good conversation, we found out some useful information. We had a 25% response rate. Feedback was mixed. It hasn’t changed much since. Would I pay for it? No. (I’m not speaking on behalf of my institution here, after all, who’s going to listen to me!?) It’s a survey with ‘personalised’ results. Yes, you can customise it, bla bla bla but it doesn’t do anything I couldn’t do. I would rather spend the money on doing something about the things I already know need attention. I know there are areas for improvement, what could it tell me that I don’t already know? What does it tell staff? Our feedback was, not a lot. Jisc has fallen in to using the ‘problematise a thing and make a thing to fix it’ technique of the vendor. The project was built on sound research by people I respect. They continue to work hard. If this were the old Jisc and a vendor were peddling this solution, would they support it? I don’t think they would.

I valued that Jisc was on our side, they represented us and fought for our interests. Now, I feel their interests are in making profit whether or not that’s in our best interest.

I valued Jisc’s impartiality. Now, I feel their need for profit has put impartiality at the bottom of their list of priorities.

I valued Jisc’s criticality. They wouldn’t recommend something they didn’t believe in themselves. I don’t think that’s the case now. It’s all a forced positive message. Even the people involved with them temper their criticism when talking about projects they’ve been working on.

I valued Jisc’s knowledge. Where is the understanding of higher ed, where is the scholarly approach, where is the grounded thought leadership? Where have all the people who worked in education gone?

I valued Jisc events. I have been to many Jisc events over the years and there was always an element of self-promotion. Rightly so, since they were funding them for free. But now there’s more sales than value. It’s soundbytes, stats and the same faces.

I’m sorry to be so blunt but I miss the old Jisc. I worry about the talented people who work there and most of all, I worry that education is losing one of its most important allies.

*** This post reflects my views only.

5 thoughts on “We need to talk about Jisc

  1. “I valued that Jisc was on our side, they represented us and fought for our interests. Now, I feel their interests are in making profit whether or not that’s in our best interest.”

    JISC are still on your side, and they have always been in the business of making a ‘profit’ i.e. income to keep the lights on. It just so happens the need to generate revenue has become more apparent due to the nature of achieving a sustainable funding model – seen as there isn’t an endless pot of gold to plunder.

    Of course I am sure you recognise that JISC are explicitly a not-for-profit organisation so any revenue they generate, I assume, is recycled into JISC to continue to provide current and future potential services that will be of use to you and the sector at large.

    I also think they way you use the word profit to be revealing in the sense that it feels like you revile from the idea that people should make a ‘profit’ or that a profit motive should be judged in a disparaging light or that it sullies a person’s / organisation’s motive.

    I gather you insist on making a profit by being paid a wage from your employer. You’re in the fortunate (unfortunate) position that your job, relatively speaking (until the next restructure) is secure and your ‘bosses’ making payroll is never in question, certainly not on account of not making enough profit that month.

    When you said, “Take for instance, the Digital Capability tool. I used it, read about that here, and found it useful… It hasn’t changed much since. Would I pay for it? No.”

    Do you not recognise that if JISC had to justify the making of this tool based on the need / willingness to pay for it, it wouldn’t have (based on your view) made the product in that way, or even at all. They would have got on with building something that better suited your needs whether it be this particular tool in a different way or a different tool / service entirely based on the one undeniable and sustainable metric that matters – will people value my service enough to pay for it, and at a price where I can make a profit. (The latter part is important – without ‘profit’, the thing, JISC, you value will not be able to carry on indefinitely)

    You even acknowledge at one point that JISC’s long-term sustainability has never been an issue for you when you say, “I have taken everything I can and given nothing back.” and the implication of sullying the organisation’s reputation / motive when you say “They have now moved in to being a service provider and charging for those services and this is where I become troubled.”

    They’ve always been a service provider, it just so happens the real world has intruded and now insists that you (your institute) can’t have everything for free, paid (sorry funded) for by Joe/Jo Public the taxpayer.

    So who am I – well I head up Sales (yeah that ugly word) at a HE Vendor (and of course choose the root of anonymity for obvious reasons) who has, over the years, and is currently working with JISC. They’re working with us and a number of other vendors to help us understand how to walk the tightrope of not offending people like you – because we make ‘profit’.

    Newsflash; certainly the case for young companies working in the education sector, we’re for profit, but not necessarily making profit. Somewhat ironically, we rely on ‘funding’ (investment) like universities to keep the lights on until we can hang around long enough (typically at least three years) before the disdain and distrust of being ‘profit-making’ wears off (not the only barrier to hurdle, but I mention it in this context) enough to secure your institute’s and the sector’s custom at large.

    The HE landscape is changing, and drastically, JISC will also have to change with the changing environ. Just because they have to justify their sustainable future by charging for services provided (in the same way you’ll have to justify what you buy for your institute from JISC) doesn’t mean the motivation of the organisation or the people (as you acknowledge) has changed.

    I take Anita’s point – not so far in that they have ‘lost focus’ but they’re now in the on-going and ever evolving process of recalibrating their focus instead.

    P.S. If people were purely motivated to make profit then they wouldn’t, by and large, set-up businesses to sell to the education sector.

    1. As I acknowledged in the post, we are all feeling the effects of having to tighten our purse strings. That is out of their control. What is within their control, is how they go about addressing that and therein lies my concern.

      I have no issue with profit. People have to make a living and I’m not naïve enough to think that Jisc survived all this time on good will alone. You assume I sit in some position of privilege. I can understand you might take the post personally but would ask you not to get personal especially when you know nothing about me or the precariousness of my position. My ‘bosses’ making payroll is in question, given all the changes to University’s that have occurred (which you later acknowledge), and would be down to not making enough profit. Universities have to make enough money to keep the lights on and continue to develop in the future. Whilst we might not call it profit, we still need to receive more money than we spend. It might not be as precarious as working for a business but it’s a worrying assumption that says a lot about you, to think we sit safe and sound up on Mount University.

      How much do you know about the digital capability project? It’s origin, its development? Its change from a free service, when it was first conceived, to a paid service toward the end? I followed the project and was involved in it early on. You hit the nail on the head when you say “will people value my service enough to pay for it, and at a price where I can make a profit”. My point was, no I don’t value the service enough to pay for it. My point and the point of the whole post is that Jisc should rethink what they are doing. I used the Digital Capability tool as an example. Rather than say “oh it’s great” because I like the people who are working on it and I want to keep Jisc on side, I’ll be honest and say it’s not for me. I’ve heard a lot of feedback that isn’t public. If we don’t tell Jisc, because we don’t want to hurt their feelings, how will they know that something needs to be improved?

      Jisc’s sustainability hasn’t been a problem for lots of people and the reason I raised it is to acknowledge that the sector has been complicit in this shift. I made the same point in an earlier post, which I reference, where I supported their charging for the Digital Leaders programme when people were up in arms. I support Jisc but will also say when I think something is wrong.

      I have no issue with Jisc making profit, or anyone else for that matter, when the focus is in the right direction. The whole point of my post is to say to Jisc that, in my opinion, their focus and direction is wrong and that I think has resulted from their need to make a profit, which has become more prevalent in the last couple of years. That need has overshadowed what they are doing and how they are doing it. Making a profit is not the problem it’s how the need to make a profit has effected the work.

      Profit is not the problem for me with vendors either. You make stuff, we pay for it.

      You’re working for Jisc so I understand you’re vehement defense of them. You decided to remain anonymous which is a shame but based on the comment I can see why. I chose to put my name to this despite the personal and professional detriment it may cause me. Your comment is essentially ‘you’re wrong, their motivation hasn’t changed and get over it, they need profit’. Well, from my perception as one of their ‘customers’ I feel their motivation has changed. It isn’t a case of right or wrong, it’s a case of perception and as a vendor I would expect you to understand how important perception/opinion of a company/organisation is. As a vendor, feedback must be important to the development of your product/service.

      What I hoped to do by writing this post was to say to Jisc that there’s something not right and share my perceptions, and those of people I speak to, of their organisation. They can ignore it and carry on but I can’t sit idly by when I worry about something that’s been so important to me. I think it would be wrong to see that something isn’t right and say nothing.

  2. Totally agree with your thoughts here and those of Colin. I was very proud to work for Jisc and remained proud after I left, loudly announcing, ‘I used to work at Jisc’, to my new employees and colleagues, wearing the statement like a badge of honour. Now four years on, I don’t really mention it. I have some good friends still working at Jisc and I’m not knocking these people or their experience, but to be honest, I think Jisc has totally lost it’s focus, I’m not really sure what they do anymore. Views are my own.

  3. A very interesting article and what a good idea, lets take a look. Although in my opinion a few years late as their decisions to change the structure to accommodate a narrow educational sector was at a time when the provision of education was changing (has changed) so dramatically.

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