The proposed coming together of Jisc and HESA is the latest chapter in the reconfiguration and rationalisation of the sector’s agencies which kicked off with the launch of the Bell review in March 2016.
Bell’s most significant recommendation was the bringing together of the Equality Challenge Unit, the Higher Education Academy and the Leadership Foundation for HE into a single “people” agency which was launched as Advance HE in 2018. Although the review did not ask for any further mergers it did make recommendations about closer working between the various agencies that “do data”, namely HESA, UCAS, HECSU and Jisc. The review also made encouraging noises about the benefits of cost sharing, citing the recently-formed M5 group (HESA, Jisc and QAA) as an exemplar in this respect.
Why Jisc and HESA?
Jisc has undergone a massive transformation following the Wilson review (2011) which has recast it from the “Joint Information Systems Committee of the UK Funding Councils (JISC)” – a network business with an accompanying disparate network of subcontracted technology innovation strands – to a single entity called “Jisc” which has become far more focussed on delivering services to subscribing institutions.
By contrast, the Higher Education Statistics Agency has followed a more incremental and evolutionary path since it was created in 1993. HESA’s reputation as a producer of Official Statistics and source of trusted data inevitably requires attributes like stability and robustness to come to the fore.
In recent years the work of the two organisations has become more closely aligned, as they have both enhanced their offerings around digital infrastructure and services. There have always been many areas of shared interest – like the work undertaken by both organisations to develop standard data definitions. The development of the replacement for HEIDI – known as HEIDIplus – was a joint HESA and Jisc project combining the data processing and delivery expertise of HESA with the infrastructure and innovation capabilities of Jisc. We now see parallel developments in HESA’s Data Futures and the Jisc Learner Analytics offering where even more value could be unlocked by bringing together a number of data transactions between institutions and a central data platform.
The two organisations are similar in many respects; they are both not-for profit companies with charitable status, and the membership of both companies includes UUK and GuildHE. Jisc members also include the Association of Colleges and the individual subscribing institutions. In terms of size Jisc dwarves HESA with a turnover in the latest year around £145 million, compared to HESAs 17/18 turnover which stood at a shade under £10 million – staff numbers were around 550 and 140 respectively.
In the past twelve months HESA has been appointed Designated Data Body in the new English HE regulatory framework. Any change to corporate structure would have to ensure that the DDB status is able to continue untroubled.
What does this mean for institutions?
The genesis of the Bell review was a concern across the sector about the level and number of agency subscriptions that institutions were being asked to pay. Although institutions will undoubtedly expect to see an improvement in the subscription burden, the value of developments in data-led technology and services for the sector will be the real prize here; the challenge now will be to create a future model that turns this potential into reality.
And what of UCAS and HECSU?
In all my years at HESA the question of merger between HESA and UCAS seemed to come around every few years, as these things do. History points to this model with the pre-1992 universities admissions service (UCCA) and the Universities Statistical Record (USR) sitting in the same building, sharing the same mainframe computer and having closely-integrated data flows. The geographic proximity between HESA and UCAS is a hangover from that era.
Although a coming together of HESA and UCAS would not be without merit, the HE sector of 2018 includes a far more diverse range of provision and providers – with around one half of students in the system today entering through UCAS. It is also the case that UCAS operates a huge public consumer-facing operation whereas both Jisc and HESA are primarily B2B.
Bringing UCAS and HECSU into the fold might be something for another day and I will leave it to others to speculate on the pros and cons of such a move. For now, I welcome this announcement from HESA and Jisc and encourage my former HESA colleagues – and the sector more broadly – to embrace the potential that this change offers.
Andy Youell worked for HESA, in a variety of senior roles, between 1996 and 2018