Marian Hilditch is Head of Data Quality at Teesside University.
It’s fair to say that everyone who works with higher education data has heard of JACS codes.
OK, yes, some people still think they’re the same as UCAS course codes, but even in that vague sort of way, JACS is part of the language. Complete mastery of JACS Studies is, however, rare. It’s broadly understood that we subject code our programmes and modules and that subject categories are used for external analysis, but how we get from one to the other, well…
The practice of allocating JACS codes can vary significantly between providers. It can sit anywhere between the academics who decide module or programme content, to the admin staff who type up new module or programme forms, the staff who create the module or programme within the record system, the planning officers who allocate codes or, at the very end of the line, the HESA compilers. In the best of cases, it’s a conscious team effort. More often than not, it’s an educated guess.
As with the coding process, internal uses of JACS vary greatly. In some record systems, Cost Centres and JACS codes are inseparable and a change in one means a lot of disturbance for users of the other. Everyone has use of subject groups, but as some very confusing conversations over the years have demonstrated, that could mean anything from an academic cluster of subjects, an account code, a JACS grouping (any level) or a Cost Centre. Institutions may or may not be using JACS in KPIs or other performance monitoring.
Externally, we all follow the lead of whoever chooses to use JACS, more prominently UCAS (sort of), League Tables (all in different ways), and recently the TEF. The current JACS hierarchy is rarely adopted exactly as is and a lot of care goes into remapping and putting disclaimers under briefing papers to indicate that H programme is actually under Y category, because that’s how UCAS group combined subjects.
JACS has been used well for a long time, but only a few people in each institution really understand how it works. When is a subject coding system not a subject coding system..? When you’re too nervous to let an academic define the subject of their own programme.
HECoS (and the CAH) may help dissolve some of that complexity. The move will be an undertaking for everyone, but how big a challenge will depend on the diversity of provision, size of provider, records system and culture of the organisation, among other things. Like much of Data Futures, providers can aim to meet the minimum requirements (closest JACS to HECoS code will do), or take the opportunity to review, refresh and make change work for them.
HECoS goes live along with the rest of Data Futures in 2019-20. That sounds like a long way away, but it will need to be in place for the UCAS 2019 cycle in early 2018. JACS to HECoS recoding should be happening around now.
It feels logical to recode from module up, but given the timescales involved, a programme down approach is far more practical (as things are, HECoS at module level won’t need to be in place until August 2019 for HESA submission). The bigger question is, who does the recoding? I’ve heard different answers to this question. My enthusiastic inner optimist tells me that HECoS, as a data item, could now move under the ownership of the curriculum designer. A subject code can be a subject code. Simply translating JACS to HECoS at this point will be failing to make it more than another Planning tool.
Whichever approach we take to recoding, that’s the easy bit. System changes will have to be in place for this autumn so the JACS to HECoS shift can be implemented. A lot of us will be redesigning those Cost Centre links, working closely with Finance and HR colleagues, rewriting our jobs and reports where JACS will have been inevitably hardcoded one way or another, but more importantly perhaps, learning a new language.
Losing the familiarity of JACS will take some getting used to. Both HECoS and the CAH are entirely numeric and not readily memorable (I’ve been following #HECoSCodeOfTheDay since its humble beginnings and, to my own frustration, have yet to learn a single code). An A subject is no longer an A subject. We rely on our HESA speak far more than we realise to do our jobs.
There is a lot of work ahead and the timescales not always generous, but a successful HECoS implementation and, crucially, broad adoption will be a big step forward for the sector. A flat, agnostic, subject coding framework that can be used by anyone, sounds so fundamental, that it’s surprising we’ve done without it so long. Directly comparable analytics from application to destination will be the very significant icing on the proverbial Christmas cake.