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Report of the Council on proposed collaborative arrangements between the Local Examinations Syndicate and National Computer Systems, Inc.: Notice

23 October 2000

On 17 May 2000 the Council published a Report on proposed collaborative arrangements between the Local Examinations Syndicate and National Computer Systems, Inc. (NCS) (Reporter, 1999-2000, p. 689) and a Discussion of the Report was held on 30 May 2000. The Council wish to inform the University that on 15 June 2000 the Local Examinations Syndicate decided to withdraw from negotiations with NCS as it was not possible to reach agreement on a number of important matters. The Council agreed that it would not be appropriate to respond to the comments at the Discussion as no further action was envisaged over the Report's recommendations. The Council also agreed to delay making an announcement to the University until the Michaelmas Term, in order to allow the Syndicate time to consider and inform the University of other options which would address the needs described in the Report.

The discussions with NCS remain subject to legal restrictions of confidentiality. Staff of the UCLES Group were informed about the termination of the discussions in the following terms: 'The negotiations have been conducted in good faith with the aim of achieving a successful result. However, fundamental wide-ranging issues remained unresolved and therefore Syndics decided not to proceed further.' The Council note that NCS has recently been acquired by Pearson plc and that the discussions between NCS and Pearson began on 4 May 2000.

Discussions between officers of NCS and Oxford, Cambridge, and RSA Examinations (OCR), about possible collaborations, were first held towards the end of 1999. Confidentiality agreements were entered into by OCR and the Local Examinations Syndicate in February 2000 and the Syndicate authorized its Chief Executive to sign Heads of Agreement on 31 March 2000. This Agreement, which was subject to contract, was entered into in order that further detailed negotiations could continue on an exclusive basis with the intention of entering into a definitive joint venture agreement by 30 June 2000.

The Syndicate asked the Council at its meeting on 15 May 2000 to report to the University, with the aim of enacting the necessary enabling legislation by the deadline of 30 June. The Syndicate was quite clear when it reported to the Council that the negotiations were still at an early stage. Indeed, when the Discussion took place on 30 May there was still much work to be done to identify and resolve outstanding issues before a final decision could be made whether or not to proceed with the definitive joint venture agreement. In the event, the Syndicate, with the full support of the OCR Board, decided to withdraw from the negotiations for the reason stated above.

The needs remain for OCR, and indeed the whole UCLES Group, to update their working practices and systems, and to extend the use of web-based technologies. These needs were identified some two years before the first discussions took place with NCS, and a number of small-scale research and development projects had been undertaken by the end of 1999. Some of this work, which had to be suspended while the discussions with NCS were continuing, has now been resumed.

Since the discussions with NCS were terminated, the Syndicate has been evaluating other options, taking into account three significant developments since the end of July. First, the problems with the new computer system for examinations administration (which have been noted in previous Annual Reports of the Local Examinations Syndicate) have been largely overcome as a result of work carried out over the last academic year. Second, the return to generating an operating surplus has been achieved a year earlier than expected; this improvement could only be identified in the last six weeks of the Syndicate's financial year, because of the pattern of expenditure and the difficulties of prediction resulting from recent re-organizations. Third, it is apparent that all three unitary bodies in the UK face the same problem over the requirements for anonymous marking and the return of examination scripts, and a common solution may be required of them; there is still no definite timetable for this to be achieved, because some of the technical difficulties are now being recognized.

The Syndicate remains of the view that it was right at the time to explore the possibility of developing a collaboration with NCS. Since July, however, the external and internal environments have changed significantly, in ways that could not have been predicted earlier in the year, so that the alternative option of undertaking the necessary changes in processes, systems, and web-based developments internally with some third party support has become realistic. This option falls within the framework of a comprehensive information management strategy which was approved by the Syndicate in September. Third party vendors of hardware and software have been identified and work is moving ahead to integrate the various components and to conduct an initial trial of the new procedures with selected small-entry live examinations. These examinations will be administered in parallel with the traditional standard processes and systems to ensure that they are not compromised. Following this, it should be possible within twelve months, if the initial trial is successful and if justified by the business case, to scale up the operation so that it can be applied to a complete large-entry examination. By taking this approach the Syndicate will be able to retain full control over developments.

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Cambridge University Reporter, 25 October 2000