Clearing up the information landscape

Information is dangerous territory for HEFCE. There’s a lot riding on getting the balance right between what students and the taxpayer have a right to expect, and the burden on universities in providing it.

The 2011 White Paper argued that to be ‘at the heart of the system’, students would need a diverse ecosystem of information. A landscape that would foster free-market choices and a relentless competitive drive towards quality.

However, the diversity we got looks more like a jungle: there’s the Key Information Set, the National Student Survey, and more than 500 statutory or regulatory demands on universities every year for different data sets. Meanwhile, students struggle to hack through to what really matters to them and, even if they find it, their decision-making, it turns out, is ill-served by the data.

No wonder that the sector is asking, is it worth all the effort? Who exactly does it help?

As HEFCE’s role morphs from benefactor-in-chief into something more like ‘head prefect’, if the Council gets this wrong, it could provoke mutiny among institutions for which the current information landscape is more trouble than it’s worth.

It may start with non-co-operation with data-collection, but could end with a rejection of all the puppet strings HEFCE has been able to improvise out of its remaining purse strings.

HEFCE and the other funding councils are not blind to either the danger or the power of information to deliver better universities, better outcomes for students and increased social mobility. A number of initiatives (such as HESA’s HEDIIP programme, the Funding Councils’ strategic review of information provision, and the BIS Ministerial Group on Data Transparency) have been working towards an approach that is clearer and more useful – and yet also less burdensome.

I have had the privilege to play a small role in some of these efforts, but I am concerned that the new landscape may prove infertile if we don’t design it according to 7 topographical principles:

Remember who the information is for

The key stakeholders with information needs are students (right through the cycle from school to after postgraduate – and not excluding potential returners), HE providers, funding councils, the UK governments, teachers and advisers, employers and parents.

Embrace diversity

The rich variety of the sector is one of its key strengths. So, information about it also needs to be diverse. Information is about reflecting variety as much as differences in quality.

Even more than universities, students are diverse too – each with their own information needs. The most disenfranchised prospective students may not be best served by the measures that others might find most useful.

KIS, for example, is based on the idea that there is a ‘centre ground’ of information needs. That approach neglects what non-traditional students need to know – the very people who need information most and who may be best suited to an HE provider offering something distinctive.

Context is everything

Information is more than data and, without being set in context, it is mere noise.

Students are unlikely to be able to articulate most of their information needs without good support from high-quality careers advice and guidance. In my experience, what they really want to know about are the ‘unknown unknowns’.

Understanding how information is used

There is a balance to be struck between providing what students (think they) want to know and encouraging them towards information they ought to know.

According to recent research, students generally don’t make well-balanced choices based on a rational analysis of information of a large array of pertinent information. However, there is a feedback loop between the so-called ‘left and right brain’ thinking – i.e. intuitive choices versus rational deliberation.

Intuitive feelings don’t just emerge from nowhere, but rather from many years of influence by an environment of information. This reinforces the need for information to be delivered alongside good advice and guidance, but it also means that information needs to be drip-fed – only what they want to know and only when they want to know it – and support must be sustained over several years.

Measure the right things

Satisfaction is not quality. It’s based on more than one variable: for instance, the make-up and expectations of the student body, rather than merely whether the student experience is ‘good’ (whatever that may mean).

It’s just one measure of performance. It is useful in many contexts, particularly quality enhancement – although even then, it drives enhancement based on the assumption that the student is an infallible customer. The truth is that education is not something you get, but rather something you do.

HEFCE intends to include more engagement-based questions in the NSS to reflect this, but we should keep a constant watch for better measures of teaching quality and the added value a university offers.

Measure consistently

Standardised metrics should be encouraged as widely as possible to allow analysis, comparison, benchmarking across the sector, over time and, where possible, internationally. Standards, however, should allow providers to make room for their rich differences and the different ways they may want to use the information.

To ensure enough standardisation, some information will have to be required as statutory from HE providers. That, in turn will support student choice, institutional accountability, quality enhancement and assessment. However, the burden of statutory provision should be only as much as necessary and as little as possible.

What should the funding councils do?

The funding bodies have a role to play in gathering information, causing it to be gathered, or – at the very least – facilitating its gathering. Then, they have a role in making it widely available to anyone who provided it (the universities), to bodies to which they need to be held accountable, and to respectable third-party organisations who will help get the information out to the wider world.

It could be argued that the funding bodies don’t actually need to get involved in disseminating information to the public – and particularly to prospective students – themselves. Is Unistats really necessary in a world where Which? Uni, Push, bestCourse4Me and other sites exist?

However, without something like Unistats, where could someone turn for the authoritative source? Who’s to say third parties will continue to act as conduits or to do it well? How will the good be distinguishable from the bad (such as league tables)? To this end, Unistats should be judged not on its page impressions, but on its authority and usability.

The funding councils also have a role in signposting where information may be found. It can do so without endorsing the providers, or even necessarily the information itself.

It is for the Government to prioritise better careers advice and guidance in schools and elsewhere, but, while we’re waiting, the funding councils could do more to provide a user-friendly, but authoritative context for information. For example, rather than merely providing numbers about an individual course, they could make it easier to make relevant comparisons (with other courses and over time) and to understand what variables might influence this data. In other words, giving the big picture and showing how and why diverse HE providers differ.

We live in a brave new technological world, where big data crunches numbers for breakfast. And yet, our information landscape is full of dead-tree prospectuses, course webpages and the expectation that students – who haven’t been to university, nor had parents who did – will know what they ought to want to know. Now is the time to rewrite the map to improve the gathering, analysis and usability of information in better, easier and more effective ways.

Leave a Reply