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Who counts the beans? Revisited: Just when you thought you were safe


The Office for Students (OfS) has just released this week its Data strategy 2018 to 2021. It may not seem to be very exciting as an event on the surface, but look closer and you will see that it is of paramount importance. This is because it sets put how it will gather, as a statutory requirement, the data required to effectively regulate the whole HE sector. This is a critical requirement to making informed changes. It also sets out the first three years of what will probably become of a rolling policy of unifying various data sources. The warning is there for all to see. 

“Responsibility for data quality assurance rests with a provider’s governing body. Poor-quality data returns are unacceptable, and risk putting a provider in breach of conditions F3 and F4 of our regulatory framework.” 

The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) has produced a very useful summary HE Data: Friend or foe?. The first thing noticeable is that there is considerable evidence of efforts to reduce the burden on the so called ‘providers’. There are some examples of where this burden might be reduced. It is puzzling that data on non-academic staff and university estates, both currently collected by HESA, will no longer be required. Both are crucial to the effectiveness of a university; although often not seen by many students. Could it be that the ‘providers’ would like to hide from view the extent of their estate and administration provision. One thing is certain, they may gather the data individually but will not release it unless required.

The Social Mobility agenda in the UK - Who counts the beans ? April 20 2018

Raised some concerns about the perceived independence of the agencies that gather higher education statistical data. For example, the Higher Education Statistical Agency (HESA) will continue as the major source of data for the Office for Students. Unlike the Office for National Statistics, it is not subject to ‘Freedom of Information’. Furthermore, HESA is a ‘not-for-profit’ private limited company owned by its members, Universities UK and GuildHE, and is funded by subscriptions from higher education ‘providers’ throughout the UK. Therefore the collection of key data and performance indicators is carried out by a limited company whose future is determined by the very sector under surveillance.

The policy also notes the role of the HESA initiative ‘Data Futures Programme’. The OfS will rely heavily on this to bring together data from various sources to meet their aspirations. The surprise not notes is that this initiative is being carried out in partnership with a private sector ‘for profit’ company called Civica that provides data services for many government agencies and the private sector.

These concerns probably have not eluded the OfS and they will need to be very careful not to appear too influenced by the sector that they regulate. Bringing HESA under the independent wing of the ONS would alleviate such concerns but does not look likely at present.

Monitoring students access and progress.

The main observation from the perspective of TEFS is the policy that the data must “Target, evaluate and improve access and participation, and equality and diversity activities.” To this end there is an increased emphasis on gathering together large data sets based upon “individual students” and not as aggregated data.

There is also a plan to gather together a series of linked data sets in order to make comparisons. This necessarily means that duplicated data from various sources will not be used.

“In particular, linked datasets can give us significant insights into the barriers to student success, for example by helping us better to understand the intersectional nature of disadvantage. UCAS has already developed a multiple equality measure, and is collaborating with us to further develop this work.”

This is particularly welcome and will be watched in anticipation. There is however a veiled warning that there might be more demands to come and this is welcome if it addresses some concerns of TEFS.

“We will introduce new data requirements and changes cautiously and infrequently, because we know that they can be particularly burdensome for providers. We will also collect data in a way that allows us to repurpose it to meet our emerging requirements, rather than making additional requests. In general, we will collect individual student rather than aggregate data – it can be reanalysed and linked to other data to answer new questions, and give new insights, in a way that aggregate data cannot. Where we do make changes, we will give providers as much notice as possible, although we will not hesitate to act quickly where collecting new or different data will improve our effectiveness in supporting students’ interests”.

Plans for new research welcomed.

Built in are plans to carry out new research projects using the combined data sets. This is sensible and will move decision making into a new era.

“We will carry out research and analysis in collaboration with UCAS, HESA and other organisations to develop a comprehensive evidence base”

This would involve “linked pre-application student data, UCAS data on applications and offers, individualised HESA and Individualised Learner Record (ILR) data, and outcomes data from the Graduate Outcomes survey and LEO data”

Of particular interest is the plan to develop “intersectional measures of disadvantage” and the means to “understanding patterns of progression”. This could mean many things but offers some hope that it will serve students form disadvantaged backgrounds better. But this will be done initially through short-term, targeted data collections, polling and surveys. Whilst this will fill a gap in the information that the OfS might need to gauge what problems disadvantaged students may have, it at least will add to the body of evidence.

The TEFS view.

The OfS has set out its stall well. It leaves the door open to getting new data. The emphasis on individuals and their progress through the system is a correct one but it presents data handling challenges. We have, however, reached a time in history when the computing problem should be readily overcome. More important will be how the data is presented. This should be challenged if it seems to hide situations from both the public and politicians alike rather than inform. Universities have a lot of data that they do not release easily. That they effectively own HESA should set alarm bells ringing in government.

The progress of disadvantaged students through the system is impacted by many factors. These often come together in affecting the time available for study. Factors such as disability, caring, travel time, financial problems, part-time jobs all have one thing in common; they take away time. However, this data is not readily available from individual students at a central level in institutions. But tutors and lecturers are often aware. Instead there are various surveys out there that indicate there is already a problem.

TEFS asks that the OfS sets out a plan to gather such data together and link it to attainment and outcomes of individuals. Then demand a situation whereby all students get an equal amount of time to study whatever their background. As a lecturer, I would like to enter a room full of students and not feel that the assignments and challenges that I set demand too much of many of them whilst others find it easy.

The only differential should be ability and application, not time available.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.

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