Data Futures: balancing burden and benefit

Richard Puttock, the OfS’s director of data, foresight and analysis, discusses the balance of burden and benefit in data collection, and sets out next steps in the Data Futures programme.

Data plays a critical part in the OfS’s work to deliver what students, the public and government expect of us.

We are an evidence-based regulator, drawing on a wide range of data and information to inform effective, efficient regulation that secures good outcomes for students.

This is an objective we share with the universities and colleges we regulate.

We use data and information in a variety of ways:

  • to understand individual providers’ performance, applying a proportionate approach
  • to target, evaluate and improve access and participation
  • to ensure prospective students have reliable information about higher education providers and courses
  • to understand trends and risks at sector level.

By its nature, data collection creates burden on universities and colleges, although we know that many also use Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) data to support their own activities. What is essential is that the benefits always outweigh the burdens.

A complex landscape

I’ve been involved with higher education data and statistics for far longer than I care to admit. Those of you with similar and more recent experience will be familiar with the complexities and challenges.

The Data Futures programme can trace its roots back to the Higher Education Data and Information Improvement Programme (HEDIIP), which aimed to enhance the arrangements for the collection, sharing and dissemination of data and information about the higher education system.

In 2015, when HEDIIP set out a blueprint for a new, more efficient data landscape, there were 97 separate organisations operating 520 separate data collections from providers, many of them relating to students.

Timeliness was identified as a key issue: many of the organisations requesting data said that although the HESA data covered the majority of higher education students, they were not available in time to support their decisions.

Higher education is the only educational stage in England for which learner-level data is only collected annually. By comparison, schools data is collected on a termly basis and further education data is collected from colleges up to 14 times each year.

Data Futures

The Data Futures programme was established in 2015 to tackle these issues. Its overarching aim is to deliver a transformation in the landscape, streamlining higher education data collection to reduce burden and add value.

The programme is led by HESA, with Jisc as the technical delivery partner, and shaped by engagement with higher education providers.

A lot has changed since its establishment. Not least, the OfS has come into being as the independent regulator of higher education. Like our predecessor bodies, we rely on high quality data, but our role is very different.

This means that we must not simply roll forward previous data requirements: we need to examine the data we require and consider whether it is necessary and proportionate to collect it.

Assessing burden and value

In September 2020 we committed to reviewing the frequency of data collection, as part of the Data Futures programme, to ensure that our approach is consistent with risk-based regulation.

While concerns about the burden of collecting data three times per year from all providers prompted our review, we do not want to focus too narrowly on frequency of data collection at the expense of other drivers of burden.

We have also been looking at our approach to quality and standards and the National Student Survey (NSS), two key uses of student data that may in future benefit from more frequent collections of individualised student data.

Measuring the value and burden of data collection is not easy, not least because that burden will be felt differently by every provider. We also know that burden is driven not only by frequency of collection, but also by what is collected and the quality we require for different data items.

The data landscape steering group, which provided oversight and leadership on the higher education data landscape, has developed a toolkit to help organisations such as the OfS and HESA to bring greater consistency and transparency to their assessments of data burden. However, the toolkit is perhaps less suited to the fundamental questions about the nature and timing of data collection that we are now asking.

Next steps

As our work on quality and standards and the NSS moves to the next phase, we can now begin our review of the frequency of data collection as part of the Data Futures programme.

We are also planning to consult on our new data strategy later this year, including on our approach to collecting student data.

Before we consult, we want to engage with senior managers and data practitioners in universities and colleges to help us better to understand data burden and how it is experienced.

As a first step, over the next month we will be holding a series of virtual roundtables to discuss data burden and how the OfS, and HESA, might seek to reduce it while continuing to deliver our regulatory objectives. The discussions explore:

  • the nature and causes of burden in student data collections
  • options for managing burden and ensuring proportionality
  • elements of the current Data Futures data model that are particularly burdensome, whether collected annually or more frequently.

While the discussions will focus on how data burden could be reduced, we recognise that the burden for providers will in part be offset by the extent to which they can gain value from the data.

We will therefore be interested in understanding how providers could gain greater value from more timely student data collections.

As our work on reviewing the burden of data collection continues, the teams at HESA and Jisc are busy creating the new data platform and data model that will go live for the 2022-23 academic year, supporting Data Futures.

These changes will ensure a far better (and more responsive) experience for the staff in providers who submit data and will more closely align the data we require with our regulatory activities.

Roundtable events

If you are a senior manager or data practitioner at a university or college and would like to sign up for one of the roundtable discussions, please visit the events page.

The roundtables will be held on the following dates:

  • 1400 on Wednesday 7 July
  • 1300 on Thursday 8 July
  • 0930 on Wednesday 21 July
  • 1100 on Friday 23 July


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Published 17 June 2021

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