Data across the boundaries

Earlier this month David Blaney wrote about the work to establish a new Commission for Tertiary Education and Research (CTER) in Wales. The new body will replace HEFCW and will oversee post-compulsory education and training, higher education teaching and research as a single sector.

The vision of greater cooperation and coherence between different institutions, and a reduction of duplication and inefficient competition is to be applauded though David is clear that many challenges lie ahead and the path to the establishment of the new body will not always be smooth.

HE data and FE data

In seeking a ‘whole-system solution’ to funding, regulation and performance in Wales, the new body will need to address some serious questions about the data it uses to underpin its activity. Currently in Wales, like the other three administrations of the UK, statutory data collection is done very differently between the FE and HE sectors. HESA operates a UK-wide statutory data collection function for HE institutions whereas each of the FE funding/regulatory bodies in the four administrations run their own, quite different, data collection operations.

This devolved model of higher and further education dates back to the 1992 F&HE Acts and pre-dated the broader devolution of government by half a decade. The decision to establish a UK-wide data system for the (then) new post-binary higher education sector was a sensible move though it was not finally agreed until the very last minute of negotiations. It reflects a broader tension between an HE sector that still largely operates as a UK-wide marketplace and a set of four national funding and regulatory frameworks that are diverging at an ever faster pace.

The post-92 FE data collection arrangement were, to some extent, a continuation of the pre-92 models where funding and oversight of the FE colleges (along with the polytechnics) had much more of a local dimension and operated differently in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

In Wales, data collection for FE is undertaken on the Lifelong Learning Wales Record (‘LLWR’) and the data question facing CTER is whether it is possible to utilise two separate data sources for the newly-merged sector or whether it will seek to establish a single source for its data needs. The number of HE students that cross UK-borders to study makes the risk of losing the UK dimension for HE data a very significant issue, especially as long as the student finance mechanisms continue to operate by ‘home’ administration.

To an extent this is a similar question to that already faced in Scotland where a joint HE and FE funding council exists, with HESA supplying HE data and the SFC running their own FE data collection. However in Scotland the two sectors have separate mechanisms for funding and oversight and are presented quite separately in publications and policy discussion.

A foretaste of Augar?

The question facing Wales might also be a foretaste of a conversation that will emerge in England if the Augar review of post-18 education recommends closer integration of the mechanisms for funding and regulating HE and FE. Indeed, there is already a considerable amount of rub between the two data systems in England as the Education and Skills Funding Agency demands individualised student returns from HE institutions that deliver FE and from all HEIs that deliver higher-level apprenticeships. A number of English universities are buying additional systems just to meet the FE reporting demands, over and above the HESA returns. The reciprocal agreement that was cast in the early 1990s (‘individualised data collection will be done by type of provider, not type of provision’) broke down many years ago.

As the boundaries between HE and FE continue to blur across the nations, the conversations that emerge around the data requirements of CTER in Wales could mark the start of a bigger realignment of data flows across the UK post-compulsory education system.

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