When Department for Education staff wanted to know more about management processes and procedures within alternative providers, they didn’t go to the regulators.
Neither did they go to institutional leaders, advocacy groups, or quality assurance specialists. They spoke to the liaison team at the Higher Education Statistics Agency.
People speak to the HESA liaison team all the time. It’s what they are for. If you are an inexperienced administrator grappling with the preparation of the student return, the HESA liaison team are probably your best friends – to the extent that you know or ask after individual team members.
Alison Berry is probably one of the names you know. She’s worked in the liaison team for an incredible twenty-five years, starting as one of only two team members and now having overall responsibility for a team of fourteen. She told me that in quarter three of 2019, they dealt with 11,170 emails and 1725 phone calls, the latter rising to around 250 each week during the September peak.
These queries span every collection activity that HESA undertakes, alongside requests for general support on systems and processes. The raw numbers don’t really give a full sense of the job – a question could be resolved with a single email, or with several hour-long conversations.
This more in-depth support may concern a particular set of circumstances at a provider, that would end up resulting in changes to documentation or validation. Or it could be guidance for a new member of staff getting to grips with their first return.
The reality of a data role
Liaison & Operations Manager Adam Van Coevorden told me that the majority of people in these data collection roles don’t have a data background. Although some larger universities have a dedicated data team in their planning directorate, the “HESA person” role still tends to be something that people unexpectedly fall in to. At smaller providers there may be one person running all HESA collection activity, and this may be only a part of their job description.
What this underlines to me is the human aspect of the liaison role. People genuinely do get to know individuals in the sector, often seeing them move roles and providers as they gain experience. In part, this is because there is no such thing as a stupid question.
Some of the most common questions are easily dealt with – simple stuff around logging in to HESAs systems, around deadlines and coverage. One particular favourite of the team is how to record the location of academic staff after leaving the provider when the staff member in question has died – the classic answer being to ask whether they have been good or bad.
Other requests are more focused on earthly consequences to actions – if you ask them what happens if you miss the deadline you’ll hear about a set of increasingly scary letters from HESA and (in England) the OfS. HESA report in general terms to statutory bodies like regulators at key collection milestones, and queries from OfS about providers may turn up in Liaison inboxes.
Changes to collections are a big part of the workload. As HESA data collection iterates (great news for those who want better data!) there will be changes to fields or response coding that cause confusion. And this could be at any level of data in any collection – the much-maligned HESA Estates Record, for instance, has over 700 fields.
The life of a new institutional data person will often start with a HESA induction. This is three solid hours delivered by the team at a provider, an experience that has been compared to having to learn a new language. The team are careful to tailor this induction to individual needs – it might start with looking at the data a provider already collects about students on enrollment, and seeing how these might map to HESA requirements, and an understanding of the provision offered helps make sense of these decisions.
The learning curve is astonishingly steep, but as Alison puts it – “within a year you will eat, sleep, and breathe HESA”.
If anyone does enjoy such a diet, it is the members of the liaison team. The recent emphasis on data as a regulatory tool has lead to an expansion of the team as more queries come in. For the first time, there is a formal induction process – liaison officers need to develop and gain knowledge quickly, but also need to feel comfortable. In giving advice, new officers are advised by other members of the team – a lot of the time this is reassurance, as jargon and software can be overwhelming. Knowledge and experience is also developed by visiting providers, and going to sector events (such as SROC, HESPA, and Wonkhe).
The liaison role primarily attracts people with an arts or humanities background – very similar, in fact, to the background of institutional counterparts. The key skill is the ability to explain complex technical concepts to non specialists. Empathy and a personable nature are critically important.
HESA takes mental health seriously – all staff have access to a mental health hub and dedicated helpline, and there are trained mental health first aiders available. On rare but troubling occasions, the reasonable stresses of a difficult role can mount up – it is comforting to know that the support is there, both formally and through a close-knit team.
One member of staff leads on each data collection – each one has a particular time frame, and includes a lot of details that need to be understood. Staff rotate between collections to ensure that knowledge is distributed within the team.
It’s important to note that HESA can never say if your data is correct – only if it is credible. If there is a concern the query will be along the lines of “do you believe this data is genuine”. Data is signed off at a senior level within the institution – the corrections process is based around providers identifying their own errors. Where there are systemic issues the liaison team will step in to provide training.
Your “HESA person” or data team will be very familiar with the submission dashboard, which gives an indication of whether your carefully formatted data has failed one of the automated checks. The same platform – developed iteratively in response to user feedback over 20 years – is used to record when data is signed off. And it will indicate where more detailed queries are raised.
These queries from HESA (and, increasingly, the OfS in England) are an important part of the process. These arrive at your institution via a system called Minerva. Over the summer there have been 12,000 queries raised in this way. For each collection, a provider will usually expect around 40 queries.
All of this is about making sure that HESA data – released to the public, to institutions, and used in regulation and funding allocation – is as reliable as it possibly can be. The team finds that if a team isn’t engaging as much, the data quality tends to go down. In England, OfS increasingly expects higher quality data from everyone. The initial institutional response – “They can’t really mean that, let’s do it like we always do,” has been swiftly corrected by an understanding that OfS really does mean that.
Whatever the future brings us, the demands for sector data will not stop. And it is comforting to know that those who collect and check this data are properly supported.