London’s City Lit halts online lessons until new year after ‘IT disruption’

Online lessons at City Lit have been cancelled until the new year, but face to face lessons continue

Online lessons at City Lit have been cancelled until the new year, but face to face lessons continue

England’s largest community education college City Lit has cancelled online lessons until the new year due to serious “IT disruption”.

London’s City Lit is also currently unable to process enrolments online or by phone.

Investigators have been drafted in by the college to assess what happened and bring systems back online in time for an anticipated post-Christmas rush of enrolments as adults plan their new year’s resolutions.

The college’s website has been down now for a week. It’s been replaced by a holding page which states: “We are experiencing some disruption to our IT services. As a result, face-to-face classes are continuing as scheduled wherever possible, while online classes are temporarily suspended. At the moment, we are not able to process enrolments online or over the phone.

“We would like to apologise for the inconvenience and thank you for your patience. Further updates will be provided as appropriate.”

Mark Malcomson, City Lit’s principal and chief executive, told FE Week that until an investigation is complete, he can’t confirm the cause of the disruption, such as a cyber-attack, for example. 

The college had initially hoped to be able to resume online classes from last Sunday, three days after the systems went down, but has now decided to cancel online classes for the rest of the term.

“Luckily, the majority of them are at the end of term anyway, but we’ll make sure that students can finish their classes in the new year,” Malcomson said. 

He was first alerted to the problem last Thursday morning when staff and students had lost access to systems.

During the pandemic, when all learning had to be delivered online, the college had worked to fully integrate its systems. Since then, the majority of students, between two-thirds and 70 per cent according to Malcomson, learn face-to-face in classrooms. For the rest, their courses have been paused until the new year.

Malcomson said: “The overwhelming majority of in-person courses were minimally affected, if at all. What was affected, because the [IT] systems are quite interlinked, was our ability to deliver online classes.”

The college is yet to release any further information on the cause of the disruption while a team of experts investigate, and can’t yet say when systems will be back online.

Cyber security experts JISC said “various parts” of DfE and the college’s “very good” tech staff are part of the college’s recovery team, Malcomson confirmed.

“We’ve got a very good team that was recommended to us. They are looking at two things; they’re looking at what happened, and sustainably bringing it all back to normal operating function.”

Until those investigations have concluded, Malcomson can’t say what damage has been done or whether any data has been compromised.

Another priority for the college is to re-establish online enrolment as quickly as possible in the run up to an expected rush of interest in courses after Christmas. This was “absolutely critical for us” Malcomson said, adding: “Last year we saw it [enrolments] really pick up around the 28th and 29th December as people focus on coming back after the holiday period.” 

A significant proportion of City Lit’s income comes from its course fees. 

The college saw a 27 per cent drop due to pandemic lockdowns which resulted in a financial ‘notice to improve’ from the Education and Skills Funding Agency. A FE Commissioner report praised the college’s recovery efforts at the time.

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  1. I’m an online student at CityLit. No-one has contacted me to advise of the situation, and my tutor is not replying to emails. This is some outage! The Google Classroom platform still seems to be running and I can log in with MS Office credentials as provided by CityLit- but the error message advises that I am “not entitled to view this resource; please log out and try again…”. I’m wondering if they may have lost access to student records and contact details etc as well as the specific class learning content.

    • Same here. I’m also surprised that there’s been no contact at all from the college – not even to advise us generally of the outage – so I think you may be right in terms of losing access to email addresses. Even more info on their website page notice would be helpful.

    • carla drayton

      I’m a City Lit tutor and wanted you to know that the reason your tutor has not been in touch is because your email addresses are stored on our City Lit email account which we currently have no access to. Also we have no more information than you. In fact this page has given me much more information than I have had from the college. We can currently only communicate with staff and students whose personal email adresses we have. I hope that senior management are reading these comments and others elsewhere and might decide to be a little more forthcomming to their staff.

      • Carla,

        I hate to think this, but I have a bad feeling City Lit has been hit by a cyber attack, most likely ransomware. It’s happened to companies before and if there aren’t full, offline backup systems it’s a catastrophic situation that can sink an organisation.

        I’m also worried about all of my personal information, from birthdate, NI number, photo ID, financial account numbers, and more being leaked.

        • carla drayton

          I share your concern over data but having heard nothing from management I am hoping that their silence on the subject means that it is not an issue. I can only trust they would have issued a warning if our data was vulnerable but I am dismayed by the lack of updates on the situation. I have been a tutor at City Lit for over 35yrs and this is definitely unprecedented but I am deeply disappointed by the public response of senior management. I don’t know why they are not facilitating communication with students on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. This is the only place I have found where I can find out what students are thinking and can offer a tutor’s perspective.

          • Nicholas Orloff

            I don’t take pleasure in this, but I was right:

            “We have since confirmed this was a ransomware incident where an unauthorised third-party gained access to our systems and copied some information from our network. We successfully contained the incident by shutting down the network and began the process of getting our system back up and running.”

  2. Priscilla Macpherson

    It is very annoying not to find out until today, viaTwitter, that online courses are suspended until next year. I paid £200 for an intensive Italian course and have only had 4 out of the 10 scheduled sessions. Not everyone will be able to continue next term.

  3. Jenny Wilkes

    City Lit provides truly excellent courses. I do hope they can resolve the IT issues quickly.

    I am sure they will go out of their way to try and ensure students can complete their online courses.

    • I posted the email I received today, it should show up after mod approval.

      The gist of it is “sorry, your course is cancelled and we’re not offering catch up sessions”.

      Really nervous about this as I’m in the middle of a course with standardised, scheduled testing from the British Computing Society. No information how we can finish our accreditation, after having spent roughly 100 hours of class and study time so far.

  4. Kathryn Fuller

    City Lit is clearly doing their best to deal with this serious problem. I expect that students who have been forced to miss classes will be compensated one way or another. We need to be patient and hope the problem is resolved as soon as possible, for everyone’s sake.

    I have been a City Lit student for decades and have always been impressed by how well they serve students’ needs. I look forward to enrolling for next term’s courses when it is possible to do so.

    • This is an outrageous way to treat students who have paid money for courses. My Zoom course didn’t take place on Dec 1st and since then nothing. No classes. No notification, no contact, no access the Citylit. Nothing. This is the only place I have found out some information. The IT dept and Principal should resign.

  5. Richard Perry

    It is strange that even phone calls don’t get through. There seems to be no way at all to contact them. I’m trying to book a face to face evenign course that I know was due to start in January.

    They are a fantastic resource and it would be a crying shame if this was actually an existential crisis for them.

  6. john Eastman

    As a tutor, I am sure that the college will right all wrongs, and that they are doing everything possible to get back on their feet asap. (I have a Storytelling course and a beginners Voiceover course due to start January 17th. I am sure both will run, and enrolling will be possible in the very near future.) Sorry to hear the voices of those who feel ignored…. it is a most unusual predicament! Hang in there!

    • carla drayton

      How are you feeling about next term now? I am not as optimistic as you. I have new courses that start in January, Women’s Self Defence, Tai Chi and Chi Kung (as well as continuing courses) but no way of promoting them and no way for students to enrol, as well as no meaningful update from management to indicate whether they anticipate the new term starting on time. Students are angry and frustrated. ‘Righting all wrongs’ is going to be extremely challenging. Working the way we do is precarious at the best of times, this situation is making for a very nervy Christmas break.

  7. I just received an email that is quite concerning. I’m in the middle of gaining ICDL Advanced accreditation, have passed two exams and was due to take my third in January. Some classmates were due to take an exam two weeks ago and were left clueless save for a fellow student who posted the update in Google classrooms (before we all lost access to that too).

    I feel completely left in the dark and shut out here – what’s going to happen? Is my 100+ hours of work wasted? Will we have a chance to pick up where we left off? Will be be able to re enroll in the course when things are sorted out (if they ever are?)

    This is a British Computing Society run course with standardised exams. I don’t even need the course to take the exams, I can study the book and take them via the BCS portal.

    The whole thing is shocking. My first guess was ransomware, and the more news leaks about it I’m guessing that my guess may be right.

    I can’t understand how a tutor wouldn’t at least have the basic info of their students on a piece of paper, a backup encrypted thumb drive, anything.

    Here’s the “happy holidays, sorry you can’t complete your course” email:


    We’d like to apologise for having to cancel some recent sessions of your course due to IT disruption. I am sorry to say that we are unable to provide a catch-up session. In line with our refund policy, we will be issuing you a City Lit credit for the value of the session(s) lost which will be added to your account over the coming weeks.

    We hugely value the support and engagement of our students and would like to thank you for your patience during this period. We look forward to welcoming you back to City Lit, either in person or online, in the future.

    Wishing you the best for the Festive Season.

    All the best, The City Lit Institute team

    • Nicholas Orloff

      Update – New email from City Lit! Seems like after almost a month they still don’t know what’s going on.

      We’ve been working through IT disruption which we know will have been frustrating for you, particularly if your classes were online or technology dependent. The disruption also impacted our typical communications channels which meant we haven’t been able to communicate with you about updates as usual.

      Firstly, we would like to apologise for the inconvenience. While the majority of in-person classes continued as planned, we did unfortunately have to suspend online classes until next term. We are making good progress in resolving the disruption and our website will be back in action soon. Next term our usual services like student emails and Google Classrooms will be brought back online so when we next have the chance to welcome you back to learning with us, things will be much more like the City Lit we’re all used to.

      Secondly, our investigation into what happened is ongoing and we don’t want to share any unhelpful speculation or jump to any conclusions. We will be back in touch in January once we know more. We are determined to learn any lessons from this experience so we can try to prevent something similar happening in the future.

      Finally, I want to thank you for your continued support and patience. I know this has been a challenging time.

      The whole City Lit team looks forward to seeing you again soon and wishes you the best for the Festive Season.

      With best wishes, The City Lit Team


  8. well this sounds like it has been disastrous for them, though I think they could have given more info in their ‘disruption’ notice but I guess even they didn’t know at the beginning how serious it would be. I hope all of the class work from previous courses is not wiped out and like others here I am concerned about personal details that they have stored. Let’s hope there is good news soon.

  9. It is useful to finally read something helpful. I’m afraid the guesses about ransomware here may be correct but if data has been lost we should have been informed by now. All systems are backed up separately – right? I still can’t get past the pre-recorded message on the College’s main number.

    I have really valued access to CityLit courses but live much too far away from London to make attendance in person viable for me, and there has been some feeling from history tutors that CityLit was moving away from distance learning. I’m afraid the clear failure to provide a good service to distance learners as a group of students may be indicative that this is the case. If so, it’s a real shame and will represent a loss to many.

    • I would really hope an organisation of this size would have separate, OFFLINE backups of their critical data. The first thing about backing up systems is that the backup needs to be have a physical separation from your live IT environment. So if something catastrophic happens you can wipe everything and restore in a relative short amount of time.

      No idea if this is actually ransomware, but it’s now been over two weeks since ANY comms from City Lit – even their social media pages are silent.

      Same back up principle goes for us folks at home – when you back up your computer, don’t keep the back up drive sitting on the desk with your computer. Back up basics is called “321.” It means 3 copies of your data, 2 of which you keep onsite, and 1 in a separate location. So if your house burns down you still have a backup.

  10. I have studied with City Lit for several years and have found them to be excellent, both in person and online courses. I think they stepped up to the mark very well when the pandemic hit, transferring most courses online.
    However, I think there could have been more information put on the website concerning the current situation. They must know if they have been hit by a cyber attack, in which case students should be advised so they can take any appropriate action.
    They are a great resource and I hope they come through this, but at the moment I feel very let down!

  11. I have logged a serious complaint against the city lit as i was not, contrary to policy !, informed of the cancellation of my Art History course on 12th December . I booked a course and travelled from Edinburgh as i am a speech therapist who has enjoyed years of course and connections with the city lit . We have , from Edinburgh , signposted many people who stammer , to your courses and we ve had a strong connection with Carolyn Cheasman . I requested compensation as your voice mail says you will notify people . I received an email in error about a course i was not enrolled in . I am abhorred at the response I received saying that ” my course cost ” will be refunded in line with your policy !!Your policy was to inform people of cancellations!. You did not do this and recently sent me an email in error , about another course i was meant to have attended !!!which you then apologised for . Myself and our department are so disappointed IN YOUR TREATMEMT OF LOYAL STUDENTS AND SUPPORTERS . I REQUEST A REFUND FORM TO CLAIM MY TRAVEL AND STAY IN LONDION . I have an online art history course booked and was keen to attend an introduction to this in person . I will never arrange such courses again . Please send refund claim form .

  12. janice kelly

    I am currently out of pocket for my course cost , travel to London and my hotel . I was not informed of any cancellation and others stood waiting with me for our course , who were also uninformed . The admin staff who were present , were also abhorred at this treatment . I sincerely hope the city Lit compensates well for these errors , waste of time and money and great inconvenience for people .

      • Their phones are via Microsoft Teams so are out of action along with their email accounts. Staff have not been given much information and in many cases have not been fully paid either. It would be interesting to know if CityLit have reported what clearly is a major data breach to the ICO, and reported this as a major incident to the Charity Commission and their funders.. some more investigation by FE Week could be done to find out…

        • So now it’s 3rd January. The CityLit Twitter account is encouraging me to enrol for online courses but I’ve still had no refund. I still can’t speak to anyone on the phone and while, at one stage, I seemed to manage to send them an email of complaint – what I received back was an automatic email: it was blank. I have tried sending DMs on Twitter too – no replies to those. Interestingly, I’ve not received the email Nicholas Orloff is quoting on 21 December. You’d think everyone due a refund would have got this one by now.

          I do wonder if their staff are being paid and feel very sorry for some of the administrators and tutors involved. People able to access the college must be shouting at them. More information from FE week – or anyone really – would be much appreciated.


          • To be fair, a very small movement forward today came in response to my DM on Twitter.

            City Lit says:-
            “Hi, thank you for taking the time to get in touch. We’re sorry for the temporary IT disruption last term which meant that we had to cancel some classes. We realise cancelled classes are frustrating and have contacted affected students to let them know about our refund policy, these will automatically be processed over the coming weeks. We hope we’ll have the chance to welcome you back to learning with us in the future.”

            Some temporary disruption! Candidly if I don’t book a further class with City Lit I’m doubtful if money is going to be paid back to me directly. A “credit” will just sit on my account. And if I do book a class how can I rely on them delivering Distance Learning effectively when I actually don’t understand what happened in the first place?

            My only positive take is if readers wish to provoke some kind of reaction from this College at the moment using Twitter to push for it may be most effective – or at least more effective than anything else…

  13. it is now Jan 6th and my course is due to start mid Jan but no word from City Lit yet. I have been unable to sign in since we did not have our last online lesson in mid Dec.
    Any news?

    • The principal/CEO said “The overwhelming majority of in-person courses were minimally affected, if at all.” In my experience that is not true. Our Google Classroom accounts and our Citylit email accounts have been completely inaccessible since early December. Citylit’s social media has said little to nothing about the actual problems and whether they’re being solved. Another FE Week story would help as we students are being kept in the dark!

      • And finally an answer this morning. I have a fairly detailed email confirming that the problem was ransomware and the college refused to pay.

        So while there has been a lot of poor customer service in the mix (agree with Danny’s comments above), I have some respect for CityLit’s overall standpoint and values.

        I’ve also received a refund – though no means of assessing how it’s been calculated. May be this problem will finally calm down now?

        • Patrick Lamb

          I was due to start an online course on 11 January and everything appeared to be normal with emails giving details of the course until the day itself when there was a round-robin letter from City Lit referring to the IT problem, but not making clear that it was still affecting the provision of courses. I failed to receive the link and have had no further explanation or communication about what is happening or when/if the course will be re-scheduled.

          • I was due to start a course last night which I purchased a few months ago. I received lots of communication in the week leading up to the first session including an email about the data breach with assurances that online courses this term would be unaffected. The zoom link to join the class promised 3 hours before the class did not materialise, access to my CityLit account is impossible and it’s incredibly difficult to find a way to get in touch with them. As yet there’s been no communication from them but it seems like their systems are not up and running properly. It’s incredibly frustrating.