HESA’s programme to improve the efficiency of data collection could transform the higher education landscape.
Data Futures is an industry-wide programme from the Higher Education Statistics Agency designed to make data collection and reporting in higher education more efficient, standardised across all institutions and delivered three times a year.
Data Futures may not be ready for the 2019-20 academic year – its specifications are subject to review – but the programme retains the potential to deliver value to the sector, according to strategic data analyst Andy Youell. “Too many people have invested too much time, energy, money and political capital for it not to happen,” he explains. Youell, a former director at HESA who now advises higher education institutions on data-related matters, was at the agency when Data Futures was first conceived in 2015.
Whatever tweaks are made to its framework while HESA takes stock of the project, its aims remain unchanged, and Youell believes that Data Futures is a long-overdue opportunity for a sea change in how the higher education sector uses its data. “You have to see this in the context of the data collections that HESA is currently running,” he says.
“Although those data collections have evolved a lot over the past 25 years, the fundamentals of the HESA data collections are actually the same as when the first collection ran in 1994,” he explains. “We still have a data collection model that is one big bucket for the entire year. It is about 14 or 15 months after the students first register that we get any information out of the system. It is, by modern standards, quite an old-fashioned approach to data collection so it is absolutely a time for a step change.”
It also makes for an interesting case study into how a government agency such as HESA collaborates with the private sector on a complex, industry-wide project.
Data Futures was never going to be easy and delivering it remains a challenge to HESA, higher education institutions and their technology vendors alike. Susan Wignall, business development manager for UNIT-e, believes that Data Futures’ move from a model of continuous data collection to a thrice-annual report is borne of the technological complexities and challenges that such a programme presents for vendors. “The concept of having a ready source of truth – a regular, continuous feed of this data – is what’s going to give you the most up-to-date information,” she says.
“But if you think about the way the universities work, and the intake times, I suppose three snapshots is about as far as you can go if you’re not going to have continuous feeds…Maybe those snapshots will be sufficient. It’s certainly going to resolve some of the technology issues that the universities were having internally, and it will help the vendors like us to finally finish the Data Futures modules that we have all been working on within our own information systems.”
For vendors such as UNIT-e, preparing a Data Futures module is a process of close collaboration with its customers. One of the biggest problems is finding where the data is stored and how it is then accessed and exported from a university’s system. Having a number of customers who are participating in Data Futures’ beta pilot phase has helped UNIT-e to navigate its way through the project and tailor its product accordingly.
“I don’t know how the other vendors are working with their customers on that but, certainly, we were developing our Data Futures model along those lines with customer input directly,” says Wignall. “We were seeing regular screens, regular development meetings. We were having webinars. I had a couple of our prospective customers join one of the webinars just to prove how far down the line we were with our Data Futures module, and they were very impressed by what they saw.”
Like Youell, Wignall can see the potential value in Data Futures. The UK higher education sector has hitherto lacked a standardised approach to data. How data is stored and catalogued varies across institutions. By introducing a common, standardised language to data collection and reporting, Data Futures could remedy this.
But this requires a lot of data cleansing on the part of universities. “The university has got to make sure that it can gather the data and have the confidence that those data are accurate and correct to represent what they are about to send back to HESA,” says Wignall. “It doesn’t matter if you are reporting to the board of the university or if you are reporting to a regulator, you’ve got to have trusted information when that report has been generated.”
With the complexity and scale of higher education institutions, allied to a reliance on legacy IT systems, data quality has long been a problem in the UK. Youell believes that data quality is the “single biggest challenge” that universities face, with UK institutions a decade behind their US counterparts in their data strategies.
Higher education has been too slow to recognise data as a strategic asset of similar importance to human resources, estates and finance but, with Data Futures on the horizon and general data protection regulation a legislative reality, Youell anticipates this changing. “What I am seeing now is institutions starting to wake up to the significance of data quality,” he says. “For many institutions, Data Futures is a catalyst for driving broad improvements in the management and quality assurance of their data which, of course, brings the institutions huge benefits as well because they all want good data to make decisions.”
Youell cautions that there is no one answer to solving higher education’s data problem. These are institutional issues of leadership, culture and technology. With respect to the latter, Wignall says that UNIT-e is ready and it is now up to HESA to lead with clear directions as to Data Futures’ final specifications and its expected launch date. Only then can vendors such as UNIT-e revise their Data Futures modules accordingly and all parties can see a return on their investment.