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A brief history of higher education data

The UK's higher education data infrastructure is the envy of the world and has unlikely origins in the conclusion of the Second World War. Andy Youell takes us on a brief and fascinating history.
This article is more than 6 years old

Andy Youell is Executive Director: Regulation at UCEM

The UK higher education data system is the envy of the higher education world.

In my years at HESA and HEDIIP I have worked with governments from across the globe who have looked, sometimes in awe, at the range and quality of data that is available about UK universities. As the sector’s information architecture embarks on major redevelopment, perhaps it is timely to look back at how we got here and what lessons we might learn from the history.

Cheltenham – the unassuming IT powerhouse

After World War 2, the Government Code & Cypher School of Bletchley Park was moved to RAF Eastcote in Middlesex and renamed Government Communications Headquarters. The Eastcote site was not well suited to the work of GCHQ and in 1951 the organisation relocated moved to two sites in Cheltenham.

GCHQ and its predecessor organisations were at the very forefront of computing developments and recruited heavily from UK universities, making this Regency spa town a hotbed of bright young computing talent. That legacy continues today, with both HESA and UCAS to be found in Cheltenham, not far from QAA (in Gloucester), HEFCE (in Bristol), or the Research Councils (Swindon).

The birth of sector-level data

In 1957 the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals established a committee to review admissions to University. The main recommendation of the committee was the establishment of the Universities Central Council on Admissions (UCCA) in 1961. In its early years UCCA processed data using an external computing bureau but in 1967 took the momentous decision to buys its own Univac computer. This move coincided with the need to relocate the organisation and, facing increasing competition for computing staff from the financial sector in London, UCCA moved to Cheltenham in 1968. Thanks to the proximity of GCHQ, the IT recruitment problem was solved at a stroke.

Also in 1968, the Universities Statistical Record (USR) was established under the joint auspices of CVCP and the Universities Grants Committee, and in direct response to the Robbins report which had highlighted the lack of robust statistical information about the sector. The USR was co-located with UCCA and used their computer to process data and generate its analysis. The data covered students on undergraduate and postgraduate programmes of one year or more and the data specification was very simple, reflecting the relatively homogeneous offerings then. USR collected data on university finances and academic staff and continued largely unchanged – reporting on a university sector that was, in many ways, unchanged until the early 1990s.

The changing sector

Polytechnics offered a different type of higher education experience to universities and sat alongside further education colleges under local authority control. Being a part of the local authority structure, polytechnic funding and statistical reporting operated differently across the four nations of the UK. In 1988 the Polytechnics and Colleges Funding Council assumed responsibility for funding the newly-incorporated polytechnics. The availability of coherent and comparable data about the totality of UK higher education became a more pressing issue. In 1991 the Higher Education Statistics Coordination Working Party, chaired by Professor (later Sir) Michael Sterling, the then Chair of USR, called for a greater coherence in UK higher education statistics. The reconfiguration of the sector that was heralded by the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act made the establishment of a more coherent data framework essential and on 1st January 1993, HESA was born.

A revolution

The creation of HESA was an epic undertaking with an entirely new data specification and the creation of a new organisation, using the latest Windows-based PCs (!), in Cheltenham. The sector’s response to the change was magnificent. At one minute past midnight on 1st December 1994, Debbie Price of the West London Institute of Higher Education (later part of Brunel University) made the first ever HESA submission.

HESA data collections have evolved over the following two decades, as the demands for quality and utility increased, technology and the internet developed in leaps, and as the sector developed a far richer and more diverse range of offerings. Advances in technology also enabled many other organisations to get into the data collection business, and by 2011 the sector faced over 500 different data collections of one sort or another.

The recent HEDIIP programme explored the issues behind these chaotic procedures and defined an architecture for a new rationalised data landscape, built upon an improvement in data capabilities across the sector.

What does history teach us?

Higher education has changed enormously since the mid-60s. The greater diversity and complexity of higher education provision is reflected in the complexity of the data that we collect about the sector. Massive advances in information technology have enabled richer data processes and have also raised expectations about what data can do; neither of these trends look like changing any time soon.

Change across the data landscape tends to follow a pattern of periods of evolution, punctuated with moments of significant reconfiguration every quarter of a century; the creation of USR in 1968, HESA in 1993, and the current reconfiguration under the Data Landscape Steering Group and the Data Futures programme. These moments align with broader policy changes in the sector – Robbins in the 1960s, the 1992 Act, and now the 2017 Acts.

So we are, right now, passing through a period of accelerated change. Our ongoing upgrading of the sector’s data infrastructure should, if history tells us anything, stand us in good stead for the next quarter of a century.

3 responses to “A brief history of higher education data

  1. Wot no mention of that august repository of masses of punched cards of student data and mag tapes for several decades? Step forward Mowden Hall Darlington! A place full of proper people and more HE student data at the time than those Cheltenham upstarts

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