UK government agency software purchasing policies are preventing the adoption of free and open source software in UK schools and universities, according to an early day motion signed by a number of UK Members of Parliament.
The motion, tabled by Liberal Democrat MP for Southport, John Pugh, claims that Department for Education and Skills and Becta (British Education and Technology Agency) policies are denying schools the benefits of open source software adoption.
It has subsequently been signed by MPs from the Liberal Democrat, Labour, Conservative, and Social Democratic parties, and has won the support of UK industry groups Open Source Consortium and Open Schools Alliance.
The motion states: That this House congratulates the Open University and other schools, colleges and universities for utilising free and open source software to deliver cost-effective educational benefit not just for their own institutions but also the wider community; and expresses concern that Becta and the Department for Education and Skills, through the use of outdated purchasing frameworks, are effectively denying schools the option of benefiting from both free and open source and the value and experience small and medium ICT companies could bring to the schools market.
Becta has rejected both the suggestion that it is denying schools the opportunity to use open source software and that its frameworks are out of date. We work with software providers – both open source and proprietary – to ensure that schools and colleges can make the most effective use of… software to support teaching and learning, it stated.
Becta’s procurement frameworks are based on functional requirements and open standards and are aimed at companies offering either proprietary or open source solutions. The frameworks are awarded in accordance with EU procurement legislation and assess providers against a range of criteria based around quality of provision and service, it added.
Becta also pointed out that educational institutions are not mandated to purchase from its frameworks and that there is nothing to stop and institution including open source with its statement of requirements.
The criticism of Becta is significant given that its three-year Memorandum of Understanding with Microsoft is scheduled to expire on December 31 this year. In January Becta announced that it was to review the impact of Microsoft’s educational licensing programs in the UK, and consider alternatives to Microsoft Windows and Office for the UK’s schools and colleges.
That review followed a May 2005 Becta report that indicated that the use of open source software could produce total cost savings of 44% per PC for primary schools and 24% for secondary schools, compared to standard commercial software PC configurations. The study was funded by the Department for Education and Skills and approved the use of open source software for primary and secondary schools.
An interim report examining Microsoft licensing arrangements was supposed to be delivered in June with a second report, examining home and school computer use, due to be published in August.
Neither report has seen the light of day, however. A Becta spokesperson told ComputerWire that the review had been delayed thanks to delays to Microsoft Vista, which made reaching a conclusion on licensing implications difficult.
The review is now expected to be published during the BETT educational technology event, which takes place in London in January 2007. It is understood that discussions relating to a successor to the 2003 MoU with Microsoft are still ongoing.
Becta also maintained that it supports the principles of open source software and recognizes the value-for-money benefits that the larger scale deployment could bring. Based upon a clearly defined SoR, which reflects the institutional vision, open source has the potential to play a vital role in educational transformation, it added. However it must be acknowledged that realization of the e-strategy is not just software deployment; it is a total, integrated service solution.
In addition to the 2005 approval of open source for schools, an August 2006 OSSwatch survey hosted by the University of Oxford indicated that the use of open source software is on the increase at further and higher educational establishments.
The survey found that 77% of institutions consider open source software when procuring software, although only 25% of institutions mention OSS in an institutional policy.
Early day motions are traditionally tabled by MPs to call for a debate on a particular issue, although they rarely result in debates these days, according to Parliamentary Information Management Services information. Instead they are used to draw attention to issues and to canvass support.