From education to employment

FE At Risk: Clear & Present Danger

FE is at Risk.

No I don’t mean the ongoing lack of funding, Area Reviews or even Inspections.  Those are risks we are all well aware of.  The risks I refer to are more insidious. They are risks that lurk below the surface; risks most SMTs and staff don’t know about.

In every organisation there are processes that need to be followed if the organisation is to function properly.  If the process breaks down, then chaos ensues.  Where a process has recognised risks we normally have a plan B that cuts in should the process break down.

Take a restaurant for example.  If their supplier fails to make a delivery of fresh fish, they will either take the fish off the menu or go to an alternative supplier and get a quick delivery.  It might be some hassle or be more expensive, but they have a means of fixing the problem.  The trigger point that makes them take action is the non-delivery of fish and the remedy is relatively easy.   

Now let’s consider your local hospital. If the surgical instrument sterilising process fail, and you have surgery, you could become very ill. You might even die.

Of course the process the hospital has designed should have a safeguard that tests surgical instruments for sterility before you are operated on.  But it depends on humans and they can cut corners.  But the consequences are so severe that the process has several safeguards built into it. Only in very rare circumstances will the process fail.  The risks are so high that we cannot risk the dangers that could ensue where the process breaks down.

Providers Face Bigger Risks

In the two examples above the risks were either easily identified or had extensive safeguards in place to prevent disaster.  

But recent research indicates that some FE providers face unidentified risks.  Risks where no safeguards have been designed in to the processes.

The Recruitment Process

Most providers have moved to a situation where they now have a website detailing the courses offered. Online application is now the norm in many institutions.  It saves time, money and countless trees being made into hard copy prospectuses. The benefits are clear and an online presence is expected by this year’s cohort of students. They also expect to see us on social media and to be able to access the website on their Smartphone. When they start their courses they expect to be able to upload assignments to the web and retrieve them when required. 

So imagine my surprise when I recently surveyed the websites of a number of providers and found the majority were at risk of losing their website ….. plus their email, phones and online storage for days or even weeks at a time.  

Imagine the reaction of the SMT when I asked why they had done nothing to prevent this situation from occurring.

The Problem and Solution

The problem is twofold.  We live in an age where most of us don’t really understand the Internet or IT as well as we should.  Webservers rarely go down so we aren’t exposed to the problem often.  Of course when they do it hits the news.  Think back to when various banks lost their websites due to hacking. But we think it wouldn’t, or couldn’t, happen to us.

Most people don’t realise that their website is at risk of a power cut or a damaged cable.  It goes wrong so rarely as not to have presented itself to them in the past. They also don’t understand enough about servers to know that the system can transfer to the secondary server should the primary server fail. But only if IT has built this failsafe into the system. 

Hacking is always possible but the real danger is even worse.  A few years ago I was in a college where a digger cut through the cable linking two campuses.  The result was no email, backup files and phones for several days.  But in this case the website kept going simply because I had designed a backup solution in to the marketing plan.  The cost was just £89 a year and I have to admit that at this low cost the website ran a bit slower than normal .. but it kept running and we received over 20 course applications in the few days the rest of the system was down.

So the problem is not recognising the problem and not having a plan B.  The solution is your plan B. Simple!

But of course plan B requires a bit of foresight, understanding and planning. For example, it isn’t enough to have two servers in the same building.  If there is a fire or power cut both will be out of action. What is ideally needed are two servers owned by two completely separate businesses in two different locations with two different power supplies. It is safer if the locations are in two different countries. Some of the providers I surveyed had secondary servers in the same room as the primary server .. and that is next to useless.

It Gets Worse

If you thought the single server problem was the worse it could get then think again.  As part of my research I found two organisations that had employed small web design companies that used quite obscure website platforms.

In one case the provider had used a one-man band to build their site.  The one-man band had used a very obscure piece of software to build the website and I could only find six other people in the UK with any experience of using the software.  To make matters worse the only person that could access the servers was the one-man band.  To say all that provider’s eggs were in one basket was to put it mildly. If the site went down when this guy was unavailable, perhaps due to holidays, illness or death, they had no way to get their website running again.  And worse still they couldn’t access the web files to host it on another server.  And if, like many SMEs, he went bust then again the website would disappear forever.

Needless to say none of this was on the provider’s risk register!

No one understood the risk and there was no plan B.

And when you thought it could get no worse .. it gets worse.

One provider I surveyed also had inadequate backup systems for staff and student files and the MIS system.  When I queried this I was told that the system was backed up each night and the backup was stored on the IT office. 

When I checked I found it wasn’t backed up every day.  In fact backup had been only partial for the previous 27 days.  And the backup wasn’t stored in a fireproof safe, it was in a cupboard next to the server.  In the event of fire or flood everything would be lost!


Are You in Clear and Present Danger?

If any of the above risks are apparent in your organisation it is at risk of non-recoverable danger.  If you cannot verify you have arrangements in place to protect your website and other systems, then you need to check them immediately and remedy any problems within hours. 

Fires, floods and the death of your web support guy is unlikely to happen today.  But if you think the risk of fire or flood is high enough to have insured for it then you need to take action over this now. 

However good your insurance is it cannot replace files that have been destroyed and it is highly unlikely that you would survive such disasters as I have indicated can happen.

Your Comments

Have you checked your backup systems recently?  Could your website, MIS or staff/student files be lost forever?

The risks I mention above are just a sample of IT and other risks that providers, often unknowingly, face.  Are you aware of others?   

If so, please let us know in the comments box below.

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Marketing consultant Stefan Drew was previously director of marketing at two FHE colleges and now works with colleges, universities and private providers throughout the UK, Europe and the US – visit: and

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