Looking back over 10 years of surveys, we can see how open source has grown in terms of its impact on ICT in the HE and FE sectors. For example, when we first ran our survey in 2003, the term “open source” was to be found in only 30% of ICT policies - and in some of those it was because open source software was prohibited! In our 2013 survey we now find open source considered as an option in the majority of institutions.

Open source software has also grown as an option for procurement; while only a small number of institutions use mostly open source software, all institutions now report they use a mix of open source and closed source.

However, the picture is not all positive for open source advocates, and we’ve noticed the differences between HE and FE becoming more pronounced.

Open source emerging as the choice for server software in HE

Open source is now well established as the software running on servers in HE institutions; in 2008 around 23% of HE institutions were running “all or almost all proprietary” software on servers; in our recent survey none of our respondents selected that option. While the vast majority still indicated that their servers run “mostly proprietary software with some open source”, their future plans indicate an even larger role for open source: 12% saw themselves running mostly open source in the future, and around 50% envisaged a roughly 50/50 mix of open and closed source software on their servers in the years ahead.

In FE there is a very different pattern; in 2013 over 50% of respondents from FE indicated that all or almost all software deployed on servers was proprietary - representing a decrease in the use of open source. Colleges also predicted little change in their open source adoption rate for the future.

Open source on the desktop continues to struggle

While open source has made a big impact on servers in HE, the same cannot be said for the desktop, with almost no change since the 2008 survey on the ratio of open vs. closed source for either HE or FE. Today, around 50% of institutions report that all or almost all of the software deployed on their desktops is closed source - just as they did in 2010 and 2008.

Interestingly, we are seeing an increase in HE of the number of institutions where desktop software is a 50/50 split between open and closed source software - up to 10% in 2013 from none in 2008, with 20% of institutions planning for this ratio in future. Perhaps there are early signs of a change in the fortunes of open source on the desktop? Again, there was no such indication for FE.

Partly we can explain this with the observation that a significant proportion of desktop software is procured for the principal purpose of teaching its use to students. Often closed source software is the current “industry standard” for particular sectors there will be a clear demand from teachers to base their courses on it and require its use. So perhaps we’ll only see significant shifts here if more industries outside education move towards using open source in their standard workflows.

Notable across both HE and FE is the approximately 20% reduction in usage of OpenOffice. It is possible that this is attributable to the instability and fragmentation of this project over the period since the last survey - for example it may be that some users of the OpenOffice fork LibreOffice are not reporting as OpenOffice users.


When it comes to reasons for not adopting open source solutions, interoperability and migration issues came top. However, interoperability only came fourth when listing the key considerations for procurement, and avoiding the likelihood of lock-in was barely mentioned at all.

There are many ways of interpreting this. However, we think it is clear that interoperability is a major issue affecting the ability of institutions to consider open source options. Further work would be required to identify the specific interoperability and migration issues and examine how they might be mitigated - for example, do open source solutions not support appropriate interoperability standards? Or are existing systems locking institutions in, and keeping alternatives out of consideration?

A tale of two sectors?

While the overall trend has been towards equal consideration of open source when procuring software, there has been a very significant divergence between Further and Higher Education. In many of the measures we see continuous growth for HE in terms of policy, procurement, and contributions back to open source projects.

However, in FE we see that pattern reversed in recent surveys, with less engagement by FE in open source software, and less consideration of open source solutions in procurement.

The one exception is, of course, Moodle. The open source Virtual Learning Environment is more dominant than ever in FE, while in other areas of IT open source alternatives seem to have far less impact. Again further work could identify what lessons might be learned from this interesting disparity.

As we have noted before, a level playing field for open source in procurement of software is a key consideration for getting sustained value from investment in ICT by institutions. The past 10 years of surveys indicate that the FE sector may be missing out, and that urgent intervention may be needed to reverse this trend.

Quotes from respondents

“We hardly use any open source software - the areas in which it seems most popular are in Web development and possibly development of the VLE. We run exclusively on MS Windows in the datacentres and on the desktop, we use MS SQL for all core business database systems. Whilst there is no policy against using open source at the college there would be a high training overhead should we ever need/decide to go that way - this in itself is probably a substantial obstacle in the way of using open source software.”

“The two main suites of software we use are: Adobe creative suites and Microsoft Office suites. Both are industry standard so offering anything open source just isn’t a viable option for us. Also most of our student facing resources are Apple, again open source just isn’t going to do the job.”

“There is no particular drive to move towards open source but it is always considered as one of the options when new products are being sought. We have very little in-house expertise in supporting open source and that tends to have an influence on decisions. Our biggest open source product is our VLE (Moodle).”

Further work

Based on the results of the survey we identified a number of areas for further investigation:

  • Examine what - if any - actual interoperability issues are inhibiting open source uptake
  • Examine what can be learned from the undoubted success of Moodle in the FE sector
  • Compare value for money achieved in software procurement between HE and FE

Next section: Study design and methodology