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Hunt is on for Higginson resources

Heather Welford and Ian Nash foresee little extra public sector cash for upgrading IT

Colleges are very unlikely to get much extra public sector cash to help meet the estimated Pounds 85 million needed to upgrade their computerised management and curriculum support systems.

They will be told by the Further Education Funding Council to look to their own resources in partnerships with industry, the community and big providers such as Research Machines and Xemplar.

Managers are likely to be disappointed with the timetable being set to assess and implement the key recommendations in Sir Gordon Higginson's recently-published 18-month review of information technology in colleges which identified the cash needs.

A working party to consider the recommendations has been set up through the Further Education Development Agency. The only part likely to be in place by September is the staff development programme - the least expensive option - and then only at a push.

More fundamental investments for the national computer network and development of costly materials will have to wait longer. The extent to which these needs are now pressing emerged at six regional UK seminars run by RM, Microsoft, other suppliers and the FEFC to help teacher trainers, principals, senior managers and IT co-ordinators adapt their systems.

Some of the needs are more basic than even the Higginson inquiry revealed. They call for a very basic plan of assessment leading to a three-year plan of action. Many colleges have yet to devise such an approach.

A delegate from one college at a seminar in Newcastle upon Tyne was clear about the problem. "The biggest hurdle is that senior managers and principals haven't grown up with IT," he said. "They're actually frightened of it, but they can't be seen to be frightened of it."

The aims of the seminars were to work out how to ensure the FE sector confronts the need for a properly-funded, properly-supported IT strategy, to help form networks that are easily accessible to administrative and academic staff and students in all departments, on all sites. The gaps where strategies ought to exist were firmly acknowledged by the Higginson report published in January.

RM managing consultant Paul Hykin said colleges were in dire need of some IT planning. "We've seen college libraries where students are queuing for a session at the open-access PCs, and yet two floors up there are rooms full of unused machines belonging to a different department."

Dave Pattison, IT inspector with the FEFC, said inspections last year had shown just 15 per cent of colleges with information systems that provided "significant benefit", though this was an improvement on two years before, when the figure was only 10 per cent.

While issues of cost and funding are crucial, IT money is not always put to good use. Development costs in just the last three years have totalled Pounds 400 million, yet with extremely variable results. IT had been developed in a fragmented and piecemeal way throughout FE. Hence incompatible equipment and software, duplicated data and difficulties of use, said Dave Pattison.

Suggestions that such a big investment had not always been handled wisely make it difficult for many when it comes to arguing for yet more cash. The issue was one for senior managers and principles, rather than IT specialists, seminar delegates were told.

The college that cannot cope electronically and easily with applications, admissions, curriculum development and delivery, will simply lose out, RM marketing manager Hilary Lloyd warned. Soon, 16 to 18-year-olds, who were well aware of the potential IT offered them, would reject colleges with poor IT provision.

Research had shown that IT managers in colleges may not have enough power to ensure change, said Hilary Lloyd. With too little budgetary control, they may be in a poor position to direct whole-college spending towards IT. Senior managers daunted by IT tended to leave them to their own devices. She said that a proper strategy was the only way to bridge the gap.

Geoff Calder, an IT manager at Northumberland College, said: "IT is for everyone, not just for the whiz-kids or even just for people who can manage to get on a bus."

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