Colleges are to be hit with bills for digital technology and resources previously fully funded by the Department for Education (DfE), it emerged today.
The DfE has informed not-for-profit ed tech company Jisc that its funding is to reduce significantly, meaning colleges will now be charged a subscription fee for using an IT network that connects them together, as well as other services such as free e-books.
In a letter to colleges across England today, Paul Feldman, Jisc chief executive, said: “This is the type of message that no leader wants to share and comes at a time when both Jisc and its members face significant financial and political challenges”.
Jisc is funded by all education funding councils across the UK. Up until now the DfE has covered the cost of the company providing the national research and education network, full protection from cybersecurity and e-books into general FE colleges, independent specialist colleges and sixth form colleges.
However, this will end in August 2019. The letter states: “DfE have confirmed their intention to change how they intend to fund Jisc which will involve a significant funding reduction”.
It adds: “This means we need to introduce a subscription for our general FE college members in England”.
The change will only affect colleges and providers in England, with Jisc waiting to hear more on DfE funding for sixth form colleges and independent specialist colleges. The costs of Jisc will continue to be fully covered by the devolved governments in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Mr Feldman described the move to a “mixed funding model” where the DfE only pays some of the costs, with subscriptions making up the shortfall, as “unwelcome news - representing a further cut to the overall FE budget”.
He outlined how large college groups could face subscription bills of more than £100,000 but that a “medium single site college” could expect to pay £15,000 while a “large multi-site college” would be charged £50,000. But the “vast majority of colleges” can expect to pay less than £20,000.
Mr Feldman appealed to colleges to “work with us constructively to safeguard the value and benefit of Jisc as a shared service,” and added: “we also ask for a little patience while we work with DfE to fully understand the funding settlement for 2019-20”.
David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said: “We are disappointed with the decision by DfE to cut the funding to Jisc which supports the college services”.
He added: “College budgets have been hit harder than any other part of the education system over the last eight years and we continue to fight for fair funding for colleges and for college students. This new cost for an essential service will be a real struggle for many colleges on top of other rising costs over recent years”.
Shadow skills minister Gordon Marsden said: “This funding cut by DfE to Jisc bears all the hallmarks of a department scraping around trying to find candle end economies at the end of the financial year. The sum of money saved - £6m - is pitiful in the context of DfE's overall budget, but means that colleges will have to pay tens of thousands of pounds for access to essential IT facilities, including cyber security that is currently free. The government's funding cut risk significant damage to colleges' ability to take up these essential services. The irony of government boasting about its new expensive Institutes of Technology but penny- pinching on existing colleges will not be lost on the FE sector.”
“It's not as if this government and its predecessors has not already hit colleges hard with budget cuts year by year ever since 2010. The minister needs to get a grip of her officials and reverse this decision. Coming just weeks after Theresa May's speech at Derby College , this cut shows the cold reality behind the warm words and sound bites, and the fragility of this government's supposed commitment to FE colleges and their support services,”
A DfE spokesman said: “We have asked colleges to make a contribution towards their ICT costs which will mean that they have a bigger say in the services they receive and get the maximum benefit from Jisc. This will bring colleges in line with other parts of the education sector by making sure there is a real incentive to get value for money and an excellent service.”