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Data governance – not fun (for most), but vital (for all)

Data governance can be fluffy and difficult to implement, but it’s something universities cannot afford not to have. Marian Hilditch outlines her recent visit to HESA to explain their work in this area.
This article is more than 4 years old

Marian Hilditch is Academic Registrar at the University of Bradford and chair of SROC. She writes here in her own capacity.

For the past two years, I’ve had the opportunity (and responsibility) to be the voice of the SROC (Student Records Officers’ Conference) committee and its user community on the HEDIIP Advisory Panel and its reincarnation, the HESA Data Landscape Steering Group Advisory Panel (or DLSG Advisory Panel for short).

The panel had met reliably three times a year in London, so the shock was considerable when the May venue was announced. After nine years of sending data their way, I’d finally get to visit: HESA central. I could tell you a bit about the HESA offices… the modern open plan, the coffee machine, the nice bloke at the front desk who tries hard not to smile but wants to really, the more exciting sounding second floor that I didn’t get to see (next time Dan), but instead, why don’t I tell you about data governance.

Yes, that was an awful transition, but bear with me, it gets exciting. So, where was I? Ah, yes, Data Governance. One of my first introductions to the knowledge area was in a well-regarded data management textbook that went something like this: data governance is messy, nobody can implement it and everyone hates it, so don’t worry too much about it and get stuck into the real data stuff. So I did. I learned about data repositories.

When do we want it? Now!

The thing is though, data governance is important. It’s certainly more important to my job than most of the things I learned on that course. Chances are, with both Data Futures and GDPR looming, a lot of us are thinking about implementing some kind of governance structure within our institutions right now. We understand that data has become too big for the HESA compiler or the Student Records Manager; it needs to be visible and proactively managed at institutional level. We have to know what every bit of data we hold is, how it gets there, who owns it, how we tell that it’s accurate, what it is being used for, and what’s the longest we can keep it. In an increasingly fast moving data environment, not having this clarity now will be an unaffordable drain on resources later.

So let’s talk about the ‘later’.

The change that comes with the new information landscape is so vast, that we’re pragmatically focusing on it one stage at a time. Leaving behind the familiar HESA student return is a challenge that we’re all starting to digest. We began to think about our weak points and revisit our resources in 2016. We’re getting our heads around the multiple in-year submissions and the new Collection Design in 2017. Absorbing the scale of system change is probably where we’ll be in 2018. Our sights are understandably set to delivering 2019-20 and this is what we’re working towards. But it’s good to remind ourselves that Data Futures doesn’t stop there; that’s where it begins.

If you’re familiar with the Inventory of HE data collections and the long-term aim of Data Futures, you’re already aware of the mountain ahead. If you’re one of the lucky providers to be offering degree apprenticeships, then you know what shoehorning returns into other returns looks like and, if you’re anything like me, probably have a little cry whenever you remember that LLDDHealthProb and PriorAttain exist. The incorporation of the ILR into HESA Student is, perhaps, the most timely example of what Data Futures can’t look like. It’s why a mechanism for the introduction of new fields (or whole entities) into the new Collection Design (which won’t stay as is for long after 2019/20), is fundamental to maintaining the good work we’re doing right now.

It’s easy to forget among all this, but HESA have been tasked specifically with reducing the collection burden on institutions; it’s what Data Futures is all about (though, admittedly, you need really good eyesight at the moment). Reassuringly, Collection Governance has always been part of the Data Futures Programme and Andy Youell’s closing plenary at SROC 2017, talked about the need for a code of practice that didn’t just tell HEPs what their obligations are. The relationship has to work both ways.

Real as you can get

So cue my visit to HESA.

The Advisory Panel now and then does this thing you might call a spin-off: it forms sub-groups that focus on particular strands of work that are best discussed in smaller or more specialist groups. In May, HESA formed the Data Governance sub-group and invited SROC to be a part of it. That’s right, dear readers… I did not spend one, but two whole days at HESA central! And there was even pizza in-between (thanks Alex and Andy).

The outcomes of that session are now open to sector wide consultation. HESA are asking us to comment on two areas:

1) A code of practice that includes the promised demand-side and which ensures that any new request for data (as well as provision of) meets certain principles.

2) A methodology through which we can assess the burden of change on HEPs before this is undertaken and, dare I suggest, be able to have a say in how and when we deliver.

See, I told you it gets exciting.

Both seem long overdue and much needed elements of the data collection process. There is a lot to celebrate here for providers and getting this right is perhaps the most important thing we can do for ourselves in the changing landscape. Yes, we can get stuck into “the real data stuff”, but that’s what we’ve always done and suffered for it in 2007-08, 2012-13, and every single time someone wanted our course data, only slightly differently to everybody else. Data governance can be fluffy and difficult to implement, but it’s not something we can afford not to have. So please feed back; you’ll be glad for it later.

The HESA Collection Governance Consultation is open until Friday 18 August.

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