Thursday 1 December 1994 was a significant milestone in the world of HE data. At the stroke of midnight an employee of the West London Institute of HE sent the first ever student return to the HESA servers in Cheltenham. For the first time the sector had a UK-wide, post binary-divide data and information system.
In 1994 submitting data to HESA could be done on a floppy disk, a CD-ROM, half-inch magnetic tape or, as in this case, using something called File Transfer Protocol (FTP) across the new-fangled internet. The machine at HESA which crunched all of this data had a massive (by 1994 standards) 26 gigabytes of storage; the mobile phone in your pocket today probably has 32 or 64 gigabytes.
Much has changed since the early 90s; the data collection process has evolved to deliver a world-class data quality assurance system and to provide a far more user-friendly interface for institutions to manage the submission process. However, the fundamental aspects of HESA data collections have not changed a great deal since the 1990s. Data still goes through a number of stages of quality assurance and a failure at any stage sends the institution back to the start of the submission process.
All of the data about a student must be submitted in one go; everything from entry qualifications and course information through to modules studied and qualifications awarded. Nowadays making the annual HESA student return involves a massive burst of activity at institutions during September and October, much of it processing data that institutions captured during the registration process twelve months earlier. By modern standards the fundamentals of the data collection process remain inefficient and slow with the first release of student data from the annual HESA collection happening in the January around 15 months after the students registered.
HESA has embarked on a programme to develop a more efficient approach to data collection that delivers more frequent and timely data. The vision involves both process changes and a significant technology upgrade. HESA has launched a sector-wide consultation on these proposals in order to assess the level of support for this vision and to gain a better understanding of the challenges that lie ahead.
The HE information landscape now involves a myriad of organisations (93 we think) that collect student data from the sector every year. HEDIIP conducted an in-depth study into the requirements and operations of these organisations in 2014 which confirmed that there is significant scope for the rationalisation of these collections. Access to timely data is key requirement for these data collecting organisations and if we are to achieve the rationalisation of data collections that is fundamental to the revised architecture set out in the HEDIIP New Landscape report then HESA – working with the sector – needs to create this new approach to data collections.
I am struck by the extent to which this aligns with the broader conversations around efficiency that have been taking place across the sector over the past few years. The current information landscape is chaotic, inefficient and ineffective; the vision that is set out by HEDIIP and HESA promotes efficiency and effectiveness at a system level.
At a time when there is so much other change around embarking on this journey might seem daunting. But I think that a failure to grasp this opportunity would be a big mistake. The 2011 White Paper gave a clear mandate to be bold; it called for us to redesign the information landscape. The burdens of multiple data collections and the problems of getting high-quality timely information out of the system cannot be addressed by tweaking around the edges. We have invested time and resources to fully understand the problems and to identify a vision of the future that carries broad support. Now is the time for action.
This is the best opportunity to address these issues that we have had in the past twenty-one years. We might not get another opportunity like this for a very long time.