The UK’s Open Source Consortium has joined criticism of UK government education policy towards open source software, maintaining that the British Education Communications and Technology Agency ‘pays lip service’ to open source while effectively excluding it from purchasing frameworks.
The essence of our concern is that they’re saying one thing and actually pursuing policies that are exclusive, Mark Taylor, OSC president, told Computer Business Review. Becta’s own research shows there are major benefits [with open source]. However, the reality of the framework is that it excludes both products and services.
Becta last week hit back at an early day motion tabled by John Pugh MP, which expressed concern that Becta and the Department for Education and Skills, through the use of outdated purchasing frameworks, are effectively denying schools the option of benefiting from both free and open source.
The agency, which represents the government on defining its e-learning strategy and educational information and communication technology purchasing, maintained that its procurement frameworks are based on functional requirements and open standards and are aimed at companies offering either proprietary or open source solutions.
Taylor said that while that is the theory, reality is very different. The opportunity for open source is highlighted by OSS Watch’s report, he said of a survey of open source usage at UK universities and colleges published in August, 58% of all tertiary education establishments are using Moodle, but they [Becta] don’t recommend it.
In fact, the survey, hosted by the University of Oxford, found that the open source course management system is used in 56% of further education establishments and 9% of higher education establishments, giving it a 39% share overall, but that does not alter the fact that Becta does not recommend it.
Taylor further accused Becta of paying lip service to open source and ignoring its own research. A May 2005 Becta report 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.
Becta has pointed out that suppliers in its infrastructure framework agreement are free to offer open source software, but Taylor maintained again that reality is different. The suppliers’ business models are wrapped up in providing what is currently provided in schools, he said, adding that the framework itself does not reflect the potential benefits of open source software.
The essence of open source is it changes the ICT model from a product base to a capability and support base, he said. Restricting open source to ‘you can buy this product’ is not correct. Open source can’t participate in the discounting of licensing of product because the product is already discounted as much as it can be.
An example of this product discounting is Becta’s licensing memorandum of understanding with Microsoft that began in January 2004 and was designed to reduce the cost of purchasing Microsoft licenses by 20% to 37%, whilst also maintaining the freedom to choose alternative solutions.
It’s legislated monopoly, said Taylor. It’s public knowledge that if a public sector organization is looking at open source Microsoft will reduce its prices as much as possible to get the contract.
The MoU is scheduled to expire on December 31 this year and 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.
The result has been delayed thanks to delays with the Vista operating system and is now expected to be published during the BETT educational technology event, which takes place in London in January 2007.
While Taylor said he would welcome a similar MoU with open source suppliers, he also maintained that Becta needs to be more open about its agreements. We think this should be a lot more transparent than it is, he said, adding that he expects the new MoU to be announced at BETT as a done deal.
We think there should be a public debate about whether there should be anything in the hands of 16 suppliers, he said, while dismissing Becta’s statement that institutions are not mandated to purchase from within these frameworks.
There is very strong pressure, he said of the local authorities and school board influence in favor of Becta frameworks. It would take a very brave school to go outside the Becta framework because there is a lot of pressure to go with it.
Taylor admitted that OSC members had been in contact with MP John Pugh ahead of him tabling the early day motion with Parliament, but said the OSC had also been in communication with Becta to express its views.
We’re trying to assure a level playing field where there isn’t one, he said. We’ve also spoken over an extended period of time with Becta. This is a policy that doesn’t reflect what’s happening in the IT market and doesn’t reflect what’s happening in schools.