Higher Education and the Data Revolution

Paul ClarkPaul Clark – CEO of the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) – has worked in Higher Education in a range of roles for 20+ years. He has led a number of sector-wide data initiatives, including work on open data, improving data skills and using data for increased efficiency and benchmarking. 

Data is becoming ever more critical to the running of the UK higher education sector, and those organisations that manage it effectively as an asset will win out over those that don’t. This applies to all areas of higher education activity and policy-making – from learning and teaching, to research, to engagement with business and enterprise, to ensuring that universities are operating as efficiently as they can, and offering value for money to students.

We can see these trends in a number of recent and ongoing developments: in teaching, more institutions are adopting learner analytics as a means of supporting their students on successful pathways through study, using data to identify how they learn best, where they are at risk, and to design interventions to increase success; in research, the use of research performance metrics is becoming pervasive, as universities vie to secure ever scarcer research funds, and policy-makers make decisions as to where their resources should be allocated; and in professional services, universities are gathering and benchmarking more and more data to ensure they are operating efficiently, and competing effectively with their peers.

The wider environment in which universities in the UK operate is also becoming more data-rich and data-hungry. Policy-makers are increasingly looking to data to fill the regulatory gap left by the withdrawal of public funding. Austerity measures have left less public funding available as a lever to incentivise or penalise institutional behaviour, and so data must now perform this function. Similarly, in a more consumer-driven public sector, students as customers need more and better information in order to make informed choices for the future. And potential investors in the sector (which can range from parents, to government departments, to businesses, to wealthy private individuals) need data and information to know where to put their money.

So demand for higher education data is increasing all the time. Regulators need data to support better decision-making; providers need data to improve services and compete effectively; and the wider public need data to underpin trust and confidence in UK higher education.

These trends are being driven by developments in higher education policy, but also by changes in the worlds of data, digital service delivery, and technology. The UK higher education sector is now larger, more diverse, and more dynamic than it has ever been. There are more providers operating within it, providers’ finances are growing increasingly complex, and they are also now operating on a global stage, with more international competitors and collaborations.

And in the wider world of digital technology, a similar transformation is occurring. There is a radical shift taking place in the volume, variety, and speed of data being produced – and this, combined with new technologies for storage, access, and analysis, defines the era of ‘big data’ in which we are now living. These developments are transforming all areas of our lives, including higher education.

In ten years’ time, it’s possible to envisage a digital HE sector, with data-driven universities operating within a smart, connected environment. In this vision, universities would routinely use data drawn from many sources and devices to design and deliver their services, allocate resources, and monitor their performance. Policy-makers would similarly pool data from across government and the public sector to design interventions, monitor progress, and gain a far better and more granular understanding of how policy should be designed and delivered in order to achieve their aims. And users of the system would be able to access critical real-time data and information on their own progress, the resources available to them, and what they can do to maximise their chances of success.

To some extent we can see these trends already in place in UK HE, particularly in England. The department of Business, Innovation, and Skills (BIS) is involved in a major project with three other government departments, to draw together data from a number of sources into an ‘all-education dataset’. This includes data from schools, further education, universities, the tax system, and the labour market, to understand better the pathways of individuals from primary education through to employment. A recent report by the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies also drew data from a range of sources to seek to understand better the impact that individual universities have on graduate labour outcomes.

The Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), the organisation I currently lead, is the sector’s data and information service. Responding to the developments described above, and many others, lies at the heart of our new Corporate Strategy, published last week. HESA sits at the hub of transformative change both in data and in higher education, and has the opportunity to influence both. These are very exciting times to be working in the higher education, and while the challenges can sometimes feel daunting, the opportunities opening up for all parties as a result of the data revolution offer the possibility of long-term, transformative change. Watch this space.

Bibliography

Britton, J., Dearden, L., Shephard, N. and Vignoles, A. (2016) What and where you study matter for graduate earnings – but so does parents’ income. Institute for Fiscal Studies. (Accessed: 25 April 2016).

HESA: Corporate Strategy 2016-2021 (2016) HESA. (Accessed: 25 April 2016).

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