So far, I have refrained from responding to comments in the media and among sector representatives relating to the requirement from the Department for Education (DfE) for Jisc to introduce a subscription for further education colleges in England.
I know that change like this is never welcomed, not least by us, and of course it triggers debate. We have been holding meetings around the country with affected colleges and conversations with individual colleges and we are listening to feedback.
Our sense is that, although colleges have rightly been testing the market, they have found Jisc is both value for money and that our offer is not replicable through other providers.
However, the Collab Group is considering spending time and money going to tender for services currently provided by Jisc. This flexing of muscles will probably take it to the conclusion that staying with Jisc is the best outcome. If not, the Collab Group could well find itself in an unsustainable position and be financially poorer too.
A significant number of the Collab Group have already indicated they will stay with Jisc, so I have to question the wisdom of the move to tender.
Network and security
Jisc was established as a not-for-profit to work on behalf of colleges and universities – to protect their interests and not for commercial gain. We work hard on behalf of those members to ensure they have the best network possible and robust built-in cyber security protection. That is why we will be covering the cost of providing a 1Gbit/s connection as part of membership, over and above the 100Mbit/s connection that the DfE will pay for.
Colleges that stay with us after subscription is introduced in August 2019 will benefit from £10m to £15m each year in network and cyber security improvements, thanks to the expertise of our staff. If Collab Group was able to procure a comparable set of security and network services, will that provider evolve and invest to keep up with the latest infrastructure developments and security needs?
And, judging by our stats on cyber attacks on the network, Collab colleges need to be careful they are well defended. Of the 486 such attacks on colleges in the last 12 months, 101 were against Collab Group members.
The quality and performance of the network and its protection is critical to college business and learning provision. If it stutters or fails, do colleges have any idea what that will cost, not just in terms of money, but in damage to their reputation too?
Incredibly, we got wind that one member of the Collab Group is thinking of using a standard consumer-level network connection rather than one comparable to ours. That college will have to hope that its neighbours aren’t streaming Netflix during prime-time usage of the virtual learning environment.
Recent independent studies have suggested that an appropriate level of cyber security for an FE college will cost, from the open market, around £70,000 per 1Gbit/s network connection. I have reiterated many times that this is the level of protection that Jisc members benefit from and, considering that subscription costs for the majority of colleges will be under £20,000, staying with us is a no-brainer.
Colleges that offer higher education courses and those that collaborate with universities (as most do) have other things to consider on top of the network and its protection.
If they choose to leave Jisc, there is no access to education-specific wifi, eduroam, or shibboleth-based services, which give learners and staff single sign-on to multiple systems. Under these circumstances, it becomes much harder to operate and all online communication with universities will have to go over the public internet. That’s a risk. Is it safe?
Also included with subscription is a set of digital content specific to FE, including unlimited downloads of curriculum mapped e-books for English and maths. When the government made English and maths retakes compulsory for some college learners, it did not offer providers any extra money to do so. Colleges that opt out of Jisc will end up paying thousands for these, and other e-books, on the commercial market.
Reserve fund and cost savings
Collab has also questioned why the DfE is introducing a subscription when Jisc has £86m in reserves. Firstly, it makes good business sense to hold reserves – it’s common practice. Secondly, the vast majority of that fund is restricted, designated or otherwise limited for specific purposes by our higher education funders. The amount that is not limited is in the region of £8m and all of our development work for FE comes out of this pot.
Over a five-year period (2014-2019), our DfE funding has been reduced by £10m. We have already absorbed more than £4m pa through our own efficiency savings, and we will share the benefit of VAT changes, worth £1m pa, with FE colleges that indicate they intend to sign up with Jisc. (A letter of intent has gone out to all FE colleges in England).
Being part of a very large network of multi-sector organisations is invaluable. It gives collective financial strength and bargaining power, plus sector-specific services, digital content and security protection that is not available from any other body. This situation has been hard won, but could be easily lost unless we all stick together. Is that a risk worth running?