In today’s Sunday Times (can’t link to it I’m afraid but it’s on page 4) Labour, and specifically shadow Culture Secretary Harriet Harman, takes a poke at Jeremy Hunt for presuming to consider legislation in respect of search engines such as Google and Yahoo when he himself owns a “search engine” called Hotcourses. I’m probably the last person to jump to the defence of Mr Hunt, but holding a discreet database of courses (or car parts or anything else) which can be interrogated online is quite different both qualitatively and quantitatively from a search engine, which is constantly out there adding robotically to an unlimited myriad of links. Not really a casus belli I wouldn’t have thought.
If Ms Harman had looked in the right place she might have found something a little more pertinent. The value of Hotcourses, and therefore of Mr Hunt’s shares in the company, is closely aligned to his monopolistic and symbiotic contractual arrangements with the taxpayer funded entity called The British Council. For the past 11 years Hotcourses has had the sole contract to sell the British Council’s services in respect of the “Education UK” database of courses, and for most of that period has also had the contract to collect and hold that data.
1. When (in 2002) the British Council sought to interest British universities, schools and colleges in their Education UK web service, the organisation claimed publically, in circulars and on their website, that their contract was with a “consortium” consisting of Hotcourses, UCAS, CSU and Yahoo. The British Council was lying and there was no such consortium. But Ms Harman might like to ask exactly why the British Council mentioned Yahoo then in the same breath as Hotcourses, and enquire what exactly was/is the link between Hotcourses and Yahoo. (Because there was one, wasn’t there, Jeremy).
2. The contract that the British Council signed in 2001 with Education Websites Ltd (the company that they tried to bury in 2005 whose managing director was one Jeremy Hunt) included the following clause (10.4):
“Any data specifically collected for the purposes of this contract including the database of prospective students (and which may include databases of English language courses and of independent schools) will be jointly owned by both the Client and the Contractor. On the termination of this Agreement, both parties shall be entitled to use such data and to sublicence its use”.
In other words, data, including data about institutions and courses and students, that was collected supposedly on behalf of the British Council for the “Prime Minister’s Initiative” was, and is, also owned by the company owned by the present Culture Secretary, and indeed just as his company sells that Hotcourses data service, it also sells the parallel one for the British Council. And he’s got it for good.
3. Given that the success of the Culture Secretary’s business is so closely aligned with the taxpayer-funded British Council, that it has been this way unbroken since early 2001, including both the data collected, the working of the website and the sales of the services, it would be fair to say that the Culture Secretary enjoys something close to a state subsidised monopoly in the educational course market. Yes, the quality is lousy, but that’s not the point. The point is that we pay for the British Council, and we pay for the Culture Secretary, and that they also collude commercially through subsidised business interests.
It is in fact because we pay so much to support the British Council that the organisation is able to set up and sustain monopolistic arrangements such as the one described here, and in this case the company that has shared that monopoly belongs to Mr Hunt – an arrangement that has lasted for more than a decade. What Ms Harman might like to do is contact the British Council and Mr Hunt and expose this seedy tryst. She might then lecture them both in the need for open markets, free enterprise and level playing fields. Go for it, Hattie.