The shifting data agenda between two white papers

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Many have noted the extent to which the 2016 Higher Education White Paper Success as a knowledge economy carries forward – or goes beyond – elements of the vision set out in the 2011 White Paper Students at the heart of the system. Nowhere is this difference more prominent than the way these two documents approach issues of data and information.

The 2011 White Paper set out the clarion call to “redesign the HE information landscape”. This led to the establishment of HEDIIP in 2013 and the development of a new architecture made up of oversight, standardisation, rationalisation and improved data capabilities. That vision is now starting to turn into reality as HESA launches the Data Futures programme to modernise data collection infrastructure. HESA is also establishing the new HE Data Landscape Steering Group which will work with data collectors and the increasingly diverse range of HE providers to standardise and rationalise the various flows of data across the sector.

In 2011, the data agenda covered two fairly broad areas: burden reduction and the oft-repeated mantra of “well informed students”. The new White Paper is far more specific about data issues. It points to the potential of the Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO) dataset for policymaking, and proposes the creation of a designated data publication and collection body. It also raises the possibility of a credit accumulation and transfer (CAT) system – this would be a huge data challenge.

The challenges and opportunities of a digital world run throughout the 2016 document, and it acknowledges “the particular importance of robust and timely data, especially as data is becoming ever more fundamental to driving policy and regulation in higher education.”

Nowhere is the significance of data more keenly felt than in the development of the Teaching Excellence Framework. The technical consultation for year 2 of the TEF sets out the detail of the proposed TEF algorithms and processes. This document will, I’m sure, be keenly pored-over by data-heads across the sector, in addition to those ninja data-heads at ONS who are assessing the quality of the data sources that will underpin the TEF. Their interim report speaks generally well of HE data sources and sets out recommendations for further analysis of coverage and non-response issues.

The challenges, opportunities and threats for the sector in this increasingly data-driven environment are all significant. In January HEDIIP launched an analysis of data capability self-assessments from over 100 HE providers. It didn’t paint an especially rosy picture but did present a call to action, one to which the sector appears to be responding. Over the past month HEDIIP has run a series of workshops across the country and these show some cause for optimism.

The HE sector is, as usual, brilliant at coming together to share experiences and good practice. It is clear that many institutions understand the issues and are starting to make progress. The idea that data is a strategic asset is starting to get buy in at a senior level and we are beginning to develop a shared understanding of “good” and a language to describe it. There are still significant challenges in this space: data capability needs higher visibility in order to embed this on the agenda alongside the management of other key assets (people, money, estate etc) and we have to be in this for the long haul; the problems are large and complex.

The role of data has developed significantly between the two White Papers and while much of the current debate is, rightly, focussed on the principles and practicalities of policy, the extent to which we are building a digital future is clear from both the tone and the specifics of the debate. The sector is responding to this but the challenges of the journey ahead should not be underestimated.

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