Alibaba and pals grab £35m in Jisc contracts to give overseas students access to UK courses during pandemic

Bulk of deal focuses on secure, high-performance connectivity to China

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IT services nonprofit Jisc, which runs the UK's academic network Janet, has awarded framework contracts worth up to £35m to provide remote access to British research and courses, including from China.

The deals are designed in part to give overseas students access to UK courses as travel remains severely restricted by the COVID-19 pandemic. International students are worth around £7bn to the UK economy. Chinese students make up 23 per cent of all international students studying in the UK.

When The Reg asked Jisc about why these contracts were necessary, it responded: "Current connectivity through the general internet between the UK and China is unreliable. Students in China therefore do not benefit from a comparable learning experience to their UK counterparts."

According to a tender document, the Chinese chunk of the deal, for £25m, has gone to to Alibaba.com, China's retail and cloud services giant; telecoms firm China Unicom; AIM-listed UK service provider CloudCoCo Managed IT; Singapore telco SingTel; and US communications and consultancy firm Teneo.

As for why the contracts for China and the rest of the world were worked separately, Jisc responded: "Each country has their own internet regulations, or in some countries connectivity may have bandwidth and infrastructure limitations due to geography or accessibility of networks. "The solution in China is technically not different from solutions provided for students elsewhere in the world. However, the solution reaching students in China brings together suppliers that are specialised in supplying services in China."

Jisc hopes to get managed services providing secure and high-performance connectivity for education and research from China to Jisc customers and users, which include UK universities, schools, colleges, libraries, and museums.

In June, Jisc and Alibaba launched a pilot programme – with the support of education sector bodies Ucisa, Universities UK International, and the British Council – to support Chinese students who have studied in the UK and returned home. The idea is to provide course material and "virtual learning environments" hosted on Jisc's Janet Network, or other cloud providers' networks.

The University of Southampton, University of York, Queen Mary University of London, and King's College London were the first institutions to sign up to the trial.

Jisc said there had been a great deal of uncertainty for students from China due to the pandemic disrupting global travel. Many returned to continue their studies, examinations, and assessments online as the virus struck the global economy.

"The focus is now to invest in our international students to ensure they receive the best quality and equitable experience for the start of the new term in the autumn, with the inevitability that they will be learning online for at least the first part of the academic year."

The framework for the rest of the world is worth £10m. Winners on that contract are China Unicom, CloudCoCo, SingTel, and Teneo. ®

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