Amplifying the voice of the further education and skills sector is key to improving software licensing terms

Luciana Piccoli

Collaboration between the FES community and Jisc is essential to enhancing our collective ability to drive transparency and fair pricing for the benefit of all

Three women and two men in a business meeting

Managing the digital estate has never been more complex - especially for FE and skills (FES) colleges where stretched budgets, limited resources and escalating costs are putting the sector under considerable strain.

Software forms the backbone of blended learning, and licensing is a crucial aspect of its distribution and use. However, IT software licensing can be challenging as vendors apply different models and terms and conditions.

In the face of the seemingly inexorable rise in costs, there is an urgent need for organisations to be able to push back on unaffordable pricing models and restrictive usage terms.

Adding value to the sector through active negotiation

One of the ways that we have always added tangible value for FE colleges is by securing advantageous agreements with software vendors that provide affordable, sustainable pricing and licensing models that reflect the needs and priorities of our members. Through active negotiation, we aim to ensure fair pricing, transparent roadmaps and licensing terms that enable staff and students to use the solutions in the way they need to for education.

Recently we have observed certain adjustments in licensing terms and pricing which have understandably prompted concerns among our members. These shifts often stem from broader market dynamics such as consolidation or vendors seeking to balance investments in new technologies and achieve financial returns.

In response to these challenges, it is clear that fostering closer collaboration with the sector is essential. By working hand-in-hand, we can navigate these changes more effectively, ensuring that the interests of all parties are carefully considered and balanced.

Whatever the reason, we aim to work even more closely with our members to address these issues.

Greater insight enables more effective response

To give us greater understanding of the problem and enable us to more effectively tackle the specific challenges facing FES organisations, we asked colleges to share with us (anonymously and unattributably) which IT systems and software they are currently using. Developed in response to members’ needs to establish a benchmark, the survey provides insights that will enable us to drive future licensing negotiations that benefit the whole sector.

Responses from 97 FES organisations – which forms a representative sample of our wider membership – provide valuable information on the software usage across a wide range of functions including teaching and learning, assessment, timetabling, libraries, learning resource centres (LRC) and finance.

The changing landscape of software usage

Overall, the survey results show that there is a healthy diversity in the systems being used across the various functions, which supports competition and innovation. However, there are notable disparities in diversity between functions. For example, while nine solutions are mentioned in libraries and LRCs, many respondents are using the same one, whereas in finance there is a much more even usage across all eleven solutions mentioned.

Where we see higher levels of concentration, this tells us that we need to consider the implications of vendor lock-in and work with vendors to secure agreements which mitigate risk. We also need to work more closely with colleges to secure smooth migration to more beneficial alternatives. Migration, however, is not simple - so we will be prioritising and strengthening support for that going forward.

The changing vendor landscape means we are also exploring new solutions to better support FES organisations with curriculum development and employer engagement - including curriculum management and careers management - where gaps in the market offering are constraining choice for FE colleges.

A particularly interesting area highlighted by the survey is the virtual learning environment (VLE) function, where we’ve seen a higher level of disruption due to the enabling technologies that emerged during lockdown and are now predominating over more traditional solutions.

Understanding these trends and thinking through possible consequences for the sector is important - especially if we see one vendor dominating across a number of functional areas.

Opportunities for action

Another significant observation from the survey pertains to the delivery methods of software tools, ranging from in-house proprietary solutions to software-as-a-service (SaaS) delivered via the cloud, or sometimes a combination of both.

Broadly speaking, we can see that many curriculum-specific or student-focused solutions are being delivered in-house, whereas there is a higher take-up of SaaS across enterprise-wide functions. This insight may prompt further inquiry in future surveys, allowing us to delve deeper into this aspect and gain a more comprehensive understanding of the software deployment landscape within our community.

Building upon this point, SaaS presents numerous advantages in terms of cost reduction and operational efficiency. By eliminating the necessity to manage in-house applications and infrastructure, it streamlines processes and minimises maintenance efforts; its accessibility from anywhere and any device also ensures uninterrupted service availability, which enhances scalability and resilience.

As many vendors increasingly offer their solutions through SaaS models, the transition to cloud-based services presents a notable opportunity for the FES sector, in partnership with Jisc, to utilise this shift as a leverage point in negotiations.

Together we are stronger

Collaboration remains integral to improving our collective efforts to address these issues.

By working together, the FES community and Jisc can boost our ability to challenge dominant vendors who often seek to maintain direct relationships that preclude transparency and fair pricing. Reinforcing this stance throughout the UK’s education sector and extending it globally as well as regionally will add weight to our negotiating capabilities.

A consistent message to vendors from across not just FES but also higher education and research amplifies our collective voice and ensures that it will be heard.

This annual survey will be re-run in the autumn, and it’s important that all colleges take part in order to ensure maximum value. Participating members will receive exclusive access to the aggregated results.

If you would like to engage in our negotiations or the development of our future agreements, please email

About the author

Luciana Piccoli
Head of corporate information systems, Jisc