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Higher Education Data: Is the tail wagging the dog?

The Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) works on behalf of our universities to gather key data about their member institutions. HESA’s value is that it gathers in one place, and makes generally available, a list of key data that paints a picture of the size of universities and how well they are working and progressing. Its work is central to the idea of openness and transparency. It is also crucial to gauging how things change over time. With regard to widening access for disadvantaged groups, it reveals the extent of work still to be done. The type and quality of data about such students is at the core of this mission. Now HESA is consulting its member organisations about how non-statutory ‘voluntary’ data should be gathered and accessed. To an outsider, it might seem that the HESA tail is attached to the universities and is wagging the OfS dog as it tries to go forward.

OfS data strategy triggers other events

The publication of the Office for Students data strategy in November of last year triggered a series of events that are still unfolding. The strategy itself seemed to favour the status quo whilst also promising changes to come. Of genuine concern in many quarters is the removal of the need for universities to report so called ‘non-academic staff’ as a statutory requirement. This data is important in determining what support students and staff are likely to expect from HR departments, finance and student support services. The fact that some institutions have in the past explored the idea of ‘outsourcing’ such services might be behind the move. Now it can be completely hidden from view. Non-academic staff are essential for universities to function and easy access to dedicated student support staff can be a critical refuge for disadvantaged students struggling at university. Reporting the extent of this support across institutions should be a statutory requirement.

After a consultation report from HESA in January 2019 (there were only 99 responses and  it noted that “A number of individuals/organisations requested their responses were kept confidential”), it was only confirmed as the designated body to gather data for the OfS in February 2019. The immediate response of HESA was to change the status quo and postpone implementation of its ‘Data Futures’ initiative (see TEFS 5th April 2019 ‘Data of Futures Past: Whose fingerprint is on the return key?’). Although the OfS in its earlier strategy assumed it was going ahead, it acknowledged that “HESA’s Data Futures programme proposes high levels of data sharing.” Indeed, it was a radical plan for bringing data together and did place increased burdens on universities. The result, however, is a stalling of change and an impasse. Breaking the deadlock will take more radical moves; not only in the way data is gathered but in what statutory data is required by government and how it is overseen.

The Bell was tolling back in 2016

The origins of the current developments go back as far as the Bell Review of 2016 and so should not be a surprise to HESA or its members. The general aim then was to eliminate duplication of data sources and “focus on improving the efficiency and effectiveness of data-related functions and services” whilst also “reducing the administrative burden on institutions and enhancing the overall impact and effectiveness of the system.” (Discussed in detail by TEFS exactly a year ago in ‘The Social Mobility agenda in the UK - Who counts the beans?’). The OfS is simply following through on this agenda.

The various documents and strategies that describe the recent evolution of the data landscape inhabited by UK universities is confusing for any outsider. It takes considerable time to distil out the essence of what is behind it. The overall conclusion is that, from 2016 at least, the main driving force has been improving data efficiency and lowering the burden on the university sector. The idea of privatisation has also emerged with the involvement of private services provider, ‘Civica’ in the Data Futures’ programme. Up until the idea of ‘Data Futures’, this has been the natural, and possibly only, aim of the universities. Under pressure from its members, and in the wake of 'postponing' ‘Data Futures’, HESA is now consulting its members on a very short timescale.

The HESA consultation.

Was arranged with unseemly haste. So much so that the deadline for responses had to be extended to 3rd May 2019 (Opened 27 Mar 2019) as HESA seemed to have failed to notice that universities had taken an Easter break. The consultation itself is geared towards university member responses (see also main consultation text). This is perhaps not surprising as HESA is a company owned by its university members who pay a subscription. But this arrangement will from now on be divided into two levels. On one level they will have to pay for HESA services that cover the statutory data needs of the HESA ‘Statutory Customers’ that include OfS, UK Research & Innovation (UKRI) and the various devolved government departments across the UK. For a University to go it alone would be an ill-advised strategy. However, on another level, HESA also gathers much valuable non-statutory data. Paying for this will become optional and the consultation is addressing what is needed. This is when universities can decide for themselves what they would like to be done or what they might opt into. The likely outcome of some data being available from only some universities will be a major set-back.

The statutory requirements drive the ‘UK Performance Indicators’ that allows comparison of universities across areas such as widening participation and non-continuation rates. These must be retained and indeed strengthened with richer data collated from individuals and not post-code areas.

According to HESA, the consultation “is an opportunity to provide us with any feedback you want with regards the Data Futures Programme” and is “is the first stage of a wider series of engagements with the HE sector” Questions include;
"Would you support HESA collecting contact details of your Data Protection Officer?"
and "We would welcome any feedback that you would like to give regarding our Graduate Outcomes Programme."

Other questions are ominous in their tone. Questions about onward use of data by HESA in categories including “students and academic researchers” and “other public, private or third-sector organisations” include, “Do you agree in principle to data collected….in respect of your provider being shared by HESA?”  This is followed by an astounding question, “Are there any potential types of recipients or data services that you would not support and which you would like to see removed from one or more of the categories?”  Researchers beware!

Thus, it seems possible that universities will gather information about their students alongside HESA but not allow it to be shared. If any of this could augment what we know about disadvantaged students then surely OfS must step in.

Measuring disadvantage and widening participation.

The move towards using post-codes and POLAR* methodology as a way to define the extent of widening participation has come under considerable pressure (see TEFS 22nd April 2019 ‘UPDATE: POLAR whitewash fails to cover all surfaces.’ Its use provides a simple measure for universities to save time as they will surely have a post-code. Gathering NS-SEC data is more demanding. However, as a proxy for disadvantage POLAR falls well short of what could be considered reasonable. The methodology was intended to replace assignment of students to a specific National Statistics Socio Economic Classification (NS-SEC)** but fails woefully to look at individuals and their circumstances. In HESAs own words this year, “The use of the National Statistics Socio-Economic Classification (NS-SEC) as a measure has been discontinued, following concerns about the quality of the data collected for this variable”. The quality of the data might have much to do with the way institutions collect the information. Efforts to improve it might have been considered before ditching it.

Yet one would expect universities to have information on their students’ backgrounds and the pressures that they experience. Good institutions will acknowledge this and act to help them. A good example of this is the plight of care leavers and those estranged from their families. These students have a lot to overcome and take a bigger risk with the burden of fees falling totally on their own shoulders. Indeed the OfS sets out in advice ‘People estranged from their families’  “We encourage providers to continue to improve the collection, accuracy and evaluation of estranged student data, both for pre-entry students and those on-course.” Yet, despite the considerable efforts of the Stand Alone Charity, and overt advice from the OfS, many institutions have yet to sign up to the Stand Alone Pledge to support such students. Such a move would necessitate gathering data on these students and would be a key indicator of successful widening participation. Indeed this should be extended to take in students that are not formally estranged but receive no family support.

It will also not have escaped the attention of all universities that, as a result lack of family support, many of their students have financial problems. These are also likely to struggle with part-time jobs and commuting long distances. Institutions should also be compelled to gather data on this as a measure of widening participation and student support (see TEFS 7th December 2018 ‘Students working in term-time: Can we see the full picture please?’). Linking this to student attainment might be unpalatable but it is medicine that must be endured if actions are to be taken to ensure that total equality is achieved.

As a final thought, the OfS might reconsider the independence of HESA. Also the use of post-codes and POLAR that fails to capture many students with disadvantages and is unsuitable. This would include many of those who needed free school meals, those estranged and those with no family support. The universities might find POLAR simple and convenient but then, ‘Is the tail wagging the dog?'

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

*The current POLAR4 classification as defined by HESA “is formed by ranking five groups from quintile 1 areas, with the lowest young participation (most disadvantaged), up to quintile 5 areas with the highest rates (most advantaged), each representing 20 percent of the UK young cohort. Students have been allocated to the neighbourhoods on the basis of their postcode. Those students whose postcode falls within middle layer super output areas with the lowest participation (quintile 1) are denoted as being from a low participation neighbourhood.”

** The National Statistics Socio Economic Classifications are assigned to individual students as
1 Higher managerial, administrative and professional occupations
2 Lower managerial, administrative and professional occupations
3 Intermediate occupations
4 Small employers and own account workers
5 Lower supervisory and technical occupations
6 Semi-routine occupations
7 Routine occupations
8 Never worked and long-term unemployed (not assigned but included as unknown)


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