Apereo Values: Section 1 - Introduction
1. Challenges: Framing the Issues
The COVID-19 Pandemic has sharply challenged traditional higher education institutions to move their offerings wholly, or very significantly, online. In what is widely perceived as an existential crisis for higher education as a whole, uncertainty has become the new normal. For higher education information technology, that general uncertainty is compounded by widely-used commercial-proprietary software. Will the “sweetheart licensing deals” offered by proprietary vendors early in the pandemic be maintained? How long for? How will this impact cost and the capability to innovate to meet new challenges? With technology now central to the existence of higher education institutions, can we accept a future where innovation is constrained to proprietary software that is effectively invisible to us, and subject to vendor-provided modification only? Responses to the COVID-19 Pandemic remain, naturally, the most visible and almost all-consuming focus of attention in higher education. That does not mean other challenges have disappeared or been reduced. Indeed, early signs indicate that the pandemic is acting to compound them. Open source software can help institutions meet those challenges.
Commercial-proprietary software licensing costs include significant spend on overhead (1) Higher education might consider reprioritizing this investment to reduce costs or spend the same amount to retain, rather than reduce, capacity and the ability to innovate. In other words, invest in open source. Ben Werdmüller summarized this succinctly: “In education, government, and anywhere primarily supported by public funding, it makes sense to use software that doesn't lock you in or quietly convert public funds into private equity (2).”
Global student debt is unevenly distributed, but in the US and the UK it is reaching massive proportions (3). Commercial-proprietary software licensing fees make a minor, but not insignificant, contribution to higher education costs (4). Against the backdrop of spiralling student debt any potential cost saving should be examined critically.
For three or four decades, institutional IT strategies have changed, swinging from locally hosted to centrally hosted, and on to the prevailing fashion (at least in the US and UK) for remote hosting in the “cloud”. The dangers associated with commercial-proprietary software “lock-in” are exaggerated by the emergence of what has amounted to a “cloud-only” strategy by significant segments of higher education. A particular means of service provision has effectively become an unchallenged default. The approach has acted to remove technical capacity from institutions, and with it reduced the ability to innovate to meet changing circumstances. As institutions in the Northern Hemisphere returned in September 2020, there are already strong signs that the “reliability” of cloud offerings is not as great as was supposed.
The “cloud-only” approach has seen higher education pass student data to remote hosting providers, occasionally without adequate safeguards. This has generated a mounting level of concern within the sector. As education cloud providers eye - or use - activity and other student data generated by their platforms as the basis for a monetization strategy apparently modelled on major platforms and search providers, higher education is right to be concerned. It is time to make a strategic adjustment and evaluate alternatives to prevailing wisdom and groupthink. Solutions based around open, auditable, software should be considered as part of any strategic review.
Recent initiatives within higher education seek to combine the benefits of above-campus service provision with the ability to innovate. Cooperative and collegiate governance of services is viewed as an essential safeguard. This is reflected in the approaches of two close partners of the Apereo Foundation: the North American LAMP Consortium and ESUP-Portail Consortium in France. LAMP schools negotiate collectively with commercial service providers who provide offerings based around open source software. In France, ESUP-Portail has begun to build out collaboratively and cooperatively provided national services which are by higher education, for higher education (5).
The Post-Pandemic Landscape
As higher education emerges from the long shadow of the pandemic, resilience and sustainability are becoming watchwords. The role of diversity in generating innovation is beginning to be better understood. Dialogue around higher education as a public good, rather than simply a private commodity, is widespread. We should be very clear: there is no technological solution to the problems facing higher education, neither will open source software answer every question. Our vision of open source software will, however, make a powerful contribution to innovation and sustainable development by offering flexibility and control. Join Apereo help to realize that vision.
Apereo Foundation Board of Directors October 2020
- This is thrown into sharp relief when a commercial-proprietary vendor undertakes an initial public offering. One such IPO in the mid teens of the 21st century was highly illustrative: 52% of revenue spent on sales and marketing, 25% on administration and only 24% on research and development.
- In the first quarter of 2020 US student debt was $1,683 billion, or 7.8% of GDP (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Student_debt). In England it reached £121 billion, with a UK Government forecast of £450 billion of student debt by the middle of the 21st century (https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/sn01079/).
- Total IT spend in US institutions, for example, averaged 3 to 5% in 2014
- The ESUP-Portail approach has parallels with that of platform cooperativism.