Preparing for and running a tender exercise

You may enter into your VLE review knowing you will be conducting a procurement exercise (e.g. when your existing product is no longer supported) or it may be only one of the possible review outcomes. Either way it is a non-trivial undertaking and you need to be aware what to expect.

Your institution will have procurement experts who will guide you through the whole process and ensure you comply with all of the necessary legal requirements. This section of the Toolkit is in no way a substitute for expert advice but it can help you gain a broad understanding of the process.

We genuinely didn't have any preference when we started this. We wanted to make sure we got what was right for our University. We wanted to go through a process whereby the procurement process actually selected the product for us.

Andrew Raistrick, Business Analyst and Project Manager,
University of Huddersfield

When you define your requirements you really cannot predict who the winner is going to be. You can't go into this with any preconceived notions.

Make sure that the system works in terms of defining what's important to you and put the weightings as they really are. If cost isn't going to sway you make cost weigh as little as possible. Otherwise you could end up with the winning system as one that you don't particularly want.

It's all about the documentation and it's really, really tricky. When you go out and shop as a consumer there is a lot of heart involved. This is completely different!

Correy Murphy, Blended Learning Co-ordinator, Glasgow School of Art

What are the options?

Most universities and colleges will be classed as public sector organisations and therefore subject to particular legal requirements when it comes to procurement. Currently this involves compliance with the Public Sector European Directives for Supplies, Services and Works.

Where supplies and services exceed a threshold figure, currently 144k euros which translates to roughly £180k net of VAT, EU tendering rules apply. The price applies to the life of the contract hence a contract for three years at £62k would fall under the rules. The estimated value should include all related costs so, for example, you cannot split out ongoing charges such as maintenance and support packages to reduce the cost.

There are detailed and prescriptive regulations to be followed but this does not mean that you do not have options. There are various different procedures that you could follow.

The procedures most commonly used by the UK higher education sector are:
  • open - theoretically the fastest process although you could end up evaluating a significant number of tenders;
  • restricted - a two-stage process whereby suppliers complete a pre-qualification questionnaire prior to being invited to submit a full tender.

There are other procedures that may be potentially suitable for a VLE procurement: competitive dialogue and, since 2015, competitive procedure with negotiation. The open and restricted procedures assume that you can state your requirements in such a way that the tender responses allow you to choose the best solution. The competitive dialogue and competitive procedure with negotiation allow you to work up your requirements during dialogue and carry on subsequent rounds of negotiations until you arrive at a solution that meets your needs.

It is understandable that universities have shied away from the more complex, and less well tried and tested, procedures but in situations where your needs cannot be readily met by an off-the-shelf product and/or your requirements include some design and innovation work, it may be worth discussing these options. Suppliers have indeed told us they are surprised that UK universities very rarely use approaches involving dialogue whereas it is quite common in other parts of Europe especially the Nordic countries.