This article is more than 8 years old

Designing a landscape

Amidst a never-ending storm of technological advances, the HE data landscape is complex, inefficient, bewildering and sometimes painful to be a part of. Andy Youell looks at how we might go about redesigning it.
This article is more than 8 years old

Andy Youell is Executive Director: Regulation at UCEM

Words can be funny things. The word ‘landscape’ can conjure up a Constable-like image of fields, trees and never-ending sky; nature in all her tranquil beauty. The HE information landscape, alas, lacks these bucolic attributes. Amidst a never-ending storm of technological advances, this landscape is complex, inefficient, bewildering and sometimes painful to be a part of.

Although these might seem like wildly different interpretations of the word landscape there is an underlying notion that unites them; the sense in which they evolve and lack any sort of single unifying design. In nature this gives us the Hay Wain; in HE we have HESA and HESES.

In my previous piece I set out some of the challenges facing the information landscape; the myriad of uncoordinated data collections; the lack of a common data language and the extent to which we all struggle to keep up with technology that drives a never-ending increase in the volume, velocity and complexity of data. HEDIIP has been created to change this landscape in a way that reduces the burden on HE providers and improves the quality, timeliness and accessibility of data and information about HE.

To be a success any change agent needs to operate at two different levels. At a tactical level, change needs to be real and effective in improving the efficiency and effectiveness of operations. In this respect HEDIIP has started a number of initiatives to address issues like subject coding, student identifiers and data management capability. Each of these will contribute to making this landscape a better place but none of them alone will achieve the revolution that we seek. So we need to progress at a higher level; paint a picture on a much bigger canvas.

Change at the landscape level is a massive challenge. This landscape is made up of a huge and diverse range of complex organisations, each with their own priorities and agendas and many embarking on change (or ‘transformation’ as we now say) programmes of their own. To achieve change at this level we need a compelling vision that organisations want to support and use to help steer their own journeys.

In the summer of 2014 HEDIIP kicked off the New Landscape project to define a vision and blueprint for the landscape that has a broad level of consensus and support. This work has involved lots of talking – and even more listening; lots of analysis, plenty of coffee and the sacrifice of a few straw men. The publication of this vision marks the first time we have ever had any form of unifying principles and architecture for the information landscape. There are four main elements.

1. The information landscape needs some sort of oversight. Many of the current data collectors work in silos with little or no visibility of other collections or data sources and no mechanism or forum to bring them together. This uncoordinated behaviour tends to drive HE providers to be uncoordinated in their responses to these data requests. Therefore an oversight body needs to provide a space to bring data collectors and HE providers together and promote a more efficient and effective approach to data. The New Landscape report sets out 14 data principles that should underpin this work.

2. The landscape needs the development and adoption of a standard core data specification. Previous HEDIIP research shows that many organisations are seeking the same broad information but, frustratingly, using unnecessarily different definitions to achieve this. This work should be overseen by the oversight body described in 1 above.

3. There should be a rationalisation of data flows with a transformed HESA at its core. The current HESA collection process is too slow and cumbersome to meet the rapidly evolving needs and wants of the myriad of stakeholders in HE, but HESA could – and should – be the core data collection operation for many more organisations than it currently is.

4. There needs to be a general increase in data capability across the landscape – including both data collectors and HE providers. Although some organisations have made great progress in the management and oversight of information assets, many still have inadequate control of the data which underpins their business processes and analytical aspirations.

The vision set out in the New Landscape report is clear, coherent and ambitious. One way or another we are all stakeholders in this; we need to work together to take control of this landscape to make it fit for the future. Maybe this is our Capability Brown moment…

2 responses to “Designing a landscape

  1. HEDIIP is a very important initiative and I am following its progress with interest. I have worked with a wide range of different types of HE data for many years in order to shed greater light on the HE system and the economic and social value generated . I have been very aware of the pressures on HEIs, duplication of effort, HEIs being obliged to generate shed-loads of data for different purposes but the data generated frequently end up being of limited value for any in-depth analysis at sectoral level due to different definitions or just the wrong question being asked.. etc .. . I would ask that some input into the programme is invited from researchers into higher education – people who currently,or would potentially, use HE data ,for research into higher education – particularly from an economic perspective . It would be a missed opportunity if all of the effort went into creating a new information landscape which remained of limited value for research or analysis of the system because noone thought to ask’ external’ researchers and data users – i.e not just the users that are ‘statutory’ or purely internal users seeking internal business information . I am sure many of the researchers originally involved in the Impact of HEIs on regional economies programme ( ESRC/HE Funding bodies inititiative – ) would have valuable insights to offer from a research data user perspective… The SRHE would also be worth consulting ,

  2. Hi Ursula – thanks for leaving a comment. Yes this community of data users can offer great insights to the challenges we face and I would welcome more engagement in this area.

    At a project level there are various touch points – I would flag up the consultation on a replacement to JACS which closes tomorrow

    At a programme level, we have a jiscmail list as well as the usual Twitter and web presence. You can contact the programme office at

    I spend a lot of time on the road meeting and talking with individual, organisations and conferences across this landscape. If you would like to set something up, please drop us a line. We are next in Scotland in June.

    Andy Youell

Leave a Reply