Getting HESA ready for designation

Paul Clark, the chief executive of HESA, sets out the how the designated data body will address the challenges that this new role offers.
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HESA will this week publish a consultation on its statutory activities. This is a function of its new role as the Designated Data Body for higher education information in England – a status conferred as a result of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017.

The consultation, which is aimed at all higher education providers and sector representative bodies, sets out proposals for distinguishing between those activities that are statutory (and therefore mandatory), and those that are non-statutory (and therefore voluntary). We are inviting comment on the second category in particular, as the level of support for these will determine the future shape of HESA’s overall service offering.

The changes that HESA is currently undergoing are the most significant since its inception in 1993. The consultation is a major milestone in determining the direction these changes will take next. At the same time, data has never been as important to the sector as it is now, nor as abundant. This means that the need for comparable, structured, and reliable data is greater now than it has ever been – for regulators, funding bodies, and Government departments in the four countries of the UK; for higher education providers; for sector bodies and agencies; for academics and researchers; and for the general public.

The core of HESA

Amid the many changes taking place, HESA will therefore continue to shape its current and future services around a number of core principles. These include the following:

The data we provide should be high-quality. This runs through everything we do, to ensure that those making decisions or performing analyses using our data can have complete confidence in its value. Our data and services should be trustworthy. We are an independent and impartial agency providing data services for others to use as they need. We have no axes to grind or positions to take, except when it comes to assuring the statistical reliability of our data.

Our data should be as open and accessible as possible (except where this would infringe individual privacy). We have made good progress with our Open Data strategy, as evidenced by the release this week of data from our finance record as open data for the first time, but there is still more that we plan to do in this area. Openness will be a major theme of our strategy and activities in the future. We aim to maintain a consistent UK-wide service. As others in the sector are finding, this can be a challenge as the policy and regulatory regimes in the four countries of the UK continue to diverge. But we are determined to play our part in supporting a data framework that can facilitate a common approach across the UK, since, at an operational level, activities across UK borders continue to be closely intertwined.

And we want to ensure that our services are as efficient as possible, and that we minimise the burden on providers, including the cost. We are acutely aware of the financial pressures facing the sector – now, and over the medium term. Reshaping our activities as a result of recent regulatory changes, as well as taking advantage of new technological developments, offer opportunities to make sure that we are operating in the most cost-effective way possible, while ensuring that our services continue to meet customer expectations.

Changes to come

Preparing to operate as the designated data body is not the only change taking place at HESA at the moment. Data Futures is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to update the systems underpinning the HE sector’s data collection infrastructure. Graduate Outcomes, implemented this year, is the largest national social survey after the census. Recent events have shown that change doesn’t always go precisely to plan, especially when it is on this scale.

Our primary focus over the next few years will be on ensuring that we deliver our statutory requirements and transformation programmes effectively and efficiently, serving the requirements of the regulators, funding bodies, government departments, and providers: in short, meeting the needs of the users of our services. Taken together, the programmes and activities currently underway will modernise the sector’s approach to data, improve the provision of essential data services, and enhance the value and usability of the data we collect.

The consultation published this week offers an opportunity for providers to comment on and help shape HESA’s services. I would encourage as many as possible to take this opportunity, so we can ensure that we are continuing to meet the data needs of the sector, now and in the future.

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