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Data of Futures Past: Whose fingerprint is on the return key?

No, it's not the name of a new X-Men film, 'Back to the Future' sequel or Moody Blues revival album. But it seems 'Data Futures' is on hold for now and has slipped backwards in time. We are left wondering whose fingerprint is on the return key.

A lot seems to have happened since the Office for Students (OfS) released its Data strategy 2018 to 2021 on 29 November 2018 (Reported by TEFS 30th November 2018 ‘Who counts the beans? Revisited: Just when you thought you were safe).  Much of the strategy was predicated upon the main data provider, reconfirmed recently as the Higher Education Statistical Agency (HESA), delivering its new 'Data Futures' programme. However, by the 12th of March this seems to have fallen into disarray. Back in November 2018, the immediate response of HESA to the OfS data strategy was to announce a consultation early in 2019. The HESA online consultation opened last week (27th March) and closes very soon on the 29th April. The questions HESA requires answers to dig very deep and are comprehensive. You can see them here.

HESA announced earlier in March that implementation of the Data Futures programme would be postponed. However, in revealing the more recent consultation, there is an overt implication that that it will be changed in response to ‘suggestions’ from the universities. HESA states that: “Recent announcements have confirmed that we will not be delivering Data Futures in 2019/20. The revised time frame is being reviewed in parallel to this consultation, and as such it would not be appropriate to anticipate outcomes in this document.”

This follows fast on the heels of a discussion at the Data Futures Programme Board meeting on the 27th of February, and the HESA Board meeting on the 1st of March. It is notable that the composition of the boards are declared but no minutes can be found online. A ‘Trustees' report and financial statement for 2018’ is available to partially plug the gap in information. It seems that cost cutting is a key factor with: “Further diversify our income streams, to minimise the cost to the sector of HESA’s core services”. These are provided via a subsidiary called HESA Services Limited that distributes profits to HESA annually under a deed of covenant, and are used to limit increases in subscriptions.

What is behind the 'Data Futures' time slippage?

The reasons behind the failure to proceed as planned are not entirely clear. The demands of the OfS, coming as late as November 2018, may be a major factor. Some of our universities are not confident or ready to deliver such a major change. Indeed HESA itself admits that: "we are aware that some providers are more advanced in their preparations than others and accept that the picture regarding readiness is not uniform across the sector." Some insiders say that their universities are not diverting enough resource to the task. The costs may be greater than anticipated and expose institutions to greater scrutiny of their organisational failings. We might also be forgiven for thinking that they are ‘dragging their heels’. Added to this is the involvement of private enterprise through a private services provider, Civica (Civica chosen for HESA Data Futures programme). They are driven by profit and have been working on the technology underpinning 'Data Futures' with HESA for over a year but were only confirmed for this ongoing role in March of this year. The transformation in how data is to be reported throughout the year, and not in a single annual submission, adds to the mix and it should not be surprising that a deteriorating situation has emerged.

HESA does acknowledge the complexity of the plans with: “Data Futures is a complex, once-in-a-generation project”. The fall-back position is that for 2019/20 “collections are expected to be returned using the existing HESA Data Collection system on a retrospective basis, using modified versions of the 2018/19 Student and AP Student specifications”. Some university administrations will be well advanced in implementing ‘Data Futures’ only to find they are making a rapid U-turn in a short time frame.

Another problem with the comprehensive changes to reporting of data in ‘Data Futures’ is the idea of ‘backward mapping’ to previous HESA versions. This is vital to providing a historical context to any changes in policy for government. However, when looking through the Data Futures Resources and manual, it appears that for too many items there is a caveat of “No direct mapping”. This must set alarm bells ringing for those interested in meaningful comparisons. However, in relation to measuring widening access, postcodes for POLAR classifications and socio-economic classifications for individuals will continue to be collected.

The move to individual student data.

Lies at the core of the OfS strategy. This is a welcome move that should provide more confidence in the data reported about students. The OfS strategy notes that: “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.”

However, this also puts a burden on university administrations and may serve to expose inaccuracies in their reporting. But the advantage is that data gathered across multiple institutions will be exactly equivalent. There will be no hiding place on widening access if it works well.

The other main observation from the perspective of TEFS is 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.

However, the sharing of individual data more widely poses a data protection problem that must be solved first. The OfS strategy notes that, “HESA’s Data Futures programme proposes high levels of data sharing. We will work with HESA to ensure that data is only shared where the public and student interest are aligned. Individual students’ data must only be used for statutory purposes or in ways we expect them to approve of”. It is hard to imagine that this was not thought of first and before the recent consultation was called for.

Who counts the beans – the producer or the consumer?

TEFS examined in detail last year (TEFS 20th April 2018 ‘The Social Mobility agenda in the UK - Who counts the beans ?’) the potential conflicts of interest that are inherent in the current data gathering system for higher education across the UK. The simple fact is that HESA is a ‘not-for-profit’ private limited company owned by its members, Universities UK and GuildHE, and is funded by subscriptions from them. In addition, there is a commercial arm called HESA Services Limited. This generates a profit through providing data, training and consultancy services and is used to keep the subscription rates for higher education providers low. Essentially, this means that access to data may not be entirely free and will be likely to be subject to more charges. An important gap in openness is that, unlike the Office for national Statistics (ONS), HESA is not subject to freedom of information strictures. As a result, TEFS has called for an overhaul of the currently blurred lines of responsibility and a greater role for the ONS in overseeing the data gathering process and dissemination. Essentially diluting greatly the influence of the universities themselves through greater oversight of their data.

Tensions between government and the sector rise.

The government is proceeding to make even more demands without seeking to accept responsibility. This is not a good way to ensure policy is adhered to and the ‘chain of command’ becomes tangled with multiple weak points. The balance of responsibility is leaning too heavily toward individual universities without their managements knowing what resources they might expect in order to meet the demands.

It also seems that a tension is emerging between the aspirations of the OfS and a lack of will amongst our universities. The chain could break at any number of points. Added to this is a confused clash of responsibility between the Department for Education and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. This is exemplified by the Secretary of State for Education, Damian Hinds, issuing today a call for a review of unacceptable university admissions processes. This is a ‘knee jerk’ reaction to press reports and an OfS warning this week about the soaring number of unconditional places offered by some universities. But, importantly and worryingly, it bypasses his Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, Chris Skidmore.

Maybe the government might seek to take greater responsibility and look at the whole process from a different perspective. The students from disadvantaged backgrounds seeking to advance their education might see things differently. They see a government, the regulator and the long reach of the universities, through bodies such as HESA and UCAS, circling around them like vultures while they are starved of resources they badly need to survive.

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


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