Ghosts of data past, data present and Data Futures

As 2021 draws to an end, my mind is drawn to 2022 and what promises to be an important transition year for higher education data.

Scrooge and a spirit hovering over buildings

From August 2022, HESA’s Data Futures programme to transform higher education data collection will become a reality. In doing so, it will simplify the complex dual reporting structures that have been in place since the alternative provider record came into existence in 2014-15. While Data Futures will go ahead for the 2022-23 academic year through an end of year collection, the future approach to in-year collection of data is still to be settled. Today we have launched a consultation on how the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) should collect in-year data in England from 2023-24 onwards.

Understanding the issues

In June this year, we invited senior managers and data practitioners in universities and colleges to a series of virtual roundtable discussions to help us to better understand what generates burden in data collection and how the Office for Students (OfS) and HESA might seek to reduce it while continuing to deliver our regulatory objectives. We were delighted by the number of people responding to our invitation. In total we heard from around 60 colleagues from across the higher education sector.

During those roundtables we learned that the drivers of burden are complex. They are not just related to the number of data returns providers make, but are also influenced by quality expectations and the content of the returns.

In developing the proposals we have published today, we have listened to the feedback we received at our roundtables and have considered this in light of the emerging uses of data. We have focussed on the OfS’s uses of data. This is not because we believe our needs are more important than others, but because roundtable participants told us that much of the data other bodies want is not held on providers’ student record systems. So incorporating those needs would add considerably to the burden.

Paving the way for Data Futures

Our roundtables and consideration of how we plan to use data in the short to medium term have helped us shape the way forward for Data Futures. We propose to reduce the number of individualised student data returns from three to two a year. In addition, we propose structuring those returns so that the amount of data needed shortly after students register is reduced, giving providers more time to collate and quality-assure some data items.

While we have proposed a preferred approach, we have put forward two alternatives which we think could also allow us to deliver our aims. Each approach has advantages and disadvantages. But critically, all would provide comprehensive data for the OfS, government and the public earlier in the year. These changes should, in time, allow us to phase out other activities including the Higher Education Students Early Statistics survey (HESES) and the National Student Survey additions and removals process, while allowing us to monitor recruitment and continuation much earlier. This will help to make our regulation more responsive.

We have also identified a number of areas where we can make better use of linked data. We have even identified some data items that providers told us were hard to collect and manage, where the uses are more limited so it may be possible to remove them.

Taken as a package, we believe these changes could make a significant impact on the burden on providers, while retaining the benefits to regulation.

Data streaming

The focus of our work in recent months has been on our approach to student data. However, student data is just one of the streams of data that we and HESA collect. We have also examined other areas to ensure our requirements are proportionate.

HESA collects a substantial amount of data on academic staff. The focus on student data, and in particular Data Futures, means that the HESA staff record has not been reviewed for many years.  We, and HESA, think that it is right that HESA launch a major review of the staff record which will allow us to consider not only the data that is collected, but the providers that are required to make staff returns.

Without wishing to prejudge that review, we think the details collected on governors has limited use and is not necessary for our regulation. We are therefore proposing that we cease collection of this data immediately. We accept that this will not dramatically impact the overall burden of the HESA staff record. However, we believe we need to focus on all aspects of the data to ensure that the overall burden is proportionate.

We are also proposing to streamline the data we collect on the locations and structures of providers. In particular, we are proposing that we no longer require providers to report on how they have mapped their internal structures to HESA cost centres, as we are not aware of any routine use of this data.

Laying ghosts to rest

In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge is terrified by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come – the Ghost of the Future – although he recognises that ‘your purpose is to do me good’. The Data Futures programme is not, I hope, in the least bit terrifying to anyone. But just as the ghosts made Scrooge a better man, our consultation aims to make for better data. We look forward to hearing from data providers, data users, and anyone else with an interest in higher education data. The consultation closes on Thursday 3 February 2022.

Read the consultation Read more about the OfS’s data and analysis work


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