Government scraps Becta, plans £95m in IT cost cuts

The IT in education council and the planned Institute of Web Science have been scrapped amid widespread public sector tech cuts
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

Becta, the government agency responsible for IT in education, has been scrapped as part of the coalition government's cost-cutting drive.

Getting rid of Becta and other savings in Department for Education quangos will lead to £80m in savings, the Treasury said on Monday. Becta, formerly known as the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency, currently employs 240 staff.

The government also says it can get another £95m in savings by cutting public-sector IT spending, although a breakdown of these savings has not yet been made available.

Some of Becta's information and communications technology (ICT) policy and procurement functions will now transfer to the Department for Education, Whitehall sources said on Monday. The scrapping of Becta will not lead to the loss of benefits of the scale that had been gained by centralised negotiation with vendors, the sources suggested, adding that individual educational establishments would now get more control over their implementation of ICT.

"Naturally we are very disappointed at the government's decision," Becta chairman Graham Badman and chief executive Stephen Crowne said in a joint statement on Monday. "Becta is a very effective organisation with an international reputation, delivering valuable services to schools, colleges and children.

"Our procurement arrangements save the schools and colleges many times more than Becta costs to run. Our Home Access programme will give laptops and broadband to over 200,000 of the poorest children."

The fate of the Home Access scheme, which was only launched at the start of this year, remains unclear. ZDNet UK rang the scheme helpline on Monday morning to see whether applications for government-funded laptops could still be made, and was told by a customer services operative that "the money is running out, but all application forms are still being considered". The scheme is only scheduled to close to applications at the end of February next year.

The government department that was hardest hit by Monday's cuts was that for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). BIS is now to scrap its funding — announced by then-PM Gordon Brown in March — for a new Institute of Web Science. The institute would have been focused on the development of the Semantic Web, and would have been led by Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Professor Nigel Shadbolt of the University of Southampton.

"In light of the current pressures on public finances, the government has decided that it cannot support the creation of a new Institute for Web Science at Southampton University at this time," a BIS spokesperson said in a statement.

The BIS spokesperson told ZDNet UK on Monday that £5m would have gone into the new institute in the current financial year, with another £25m having been earmarked for the coming three years. However, the spokesperson added, the government is continuing to invest in new web technologies.

"Future internet technologies represent an important area of research, which continues to be supported through the research councils and the Technology Strategy Board," the BIS spokesperson said. "The research councils are investing £117m in a Digital Economy Programme to help drive research in this area and more than £30m is being invested in specific projects relating to the Semantic Web."

The government's £6.2bn cost-cutting drive, intended to help balance the national deficit, will also include a £1.7bn saving from "delaying and stopping contracts and projects, including immediate negotiations to achieve cost reductions from the 70 major suppliers to government", chief secretary to the Treasury David Laws said in a speech on Monday morning. It is not yet clear what proportion of these contracts and projects are IT-related.

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