Time to get real on data

The Westminster Government has placed great store in the value of data, citing the use of management information to demonstrate adherence to regulations and as a measure of teaching excellence.

Back in February, Wonkhe mooted a potential return of the idea of real-time data as a regulatory tool when flagging up an Office for Students consultation, expected imminently, on the data strategy the OfS might take in meeting its regulatory objectives.

Accuracy and speed

While I’m sure OfS will make its view clear, real-time data can suggest “instantaneous” – and the level of maturity of the data capability of the sector is just not high enough to deliver accurate data instantly. An alternative view is where data is processed fast enough for the purpose.

UCISA, as the expert community harnessing the power of digital to enable the transformation of teaching, learning and research in education, looks forward to responding to any OfS consultation request. We have a good understanding of higher education data structures, recognised by membership of the UCAS council and advisory bodies for HESA’s Data Landscape and Data Futures projects.

The state of the art

But either way, it’s not always that simple. Universities are underpinned by a plethora of business systems. The UK, with a few notable exceptions, has tended to adopt a best of breed approach, procuring what is perceived as the best system for the particular function. UCISA’s corporate information systems survey shows little change over the past ten years for the core business systems for finance and student records with dominant suppliers for both – but is that about to change?

Stability in the market does not necessarily imply satisfaction. Several institutions have carried out reviews of their student records systems or learning management systems with mixed results. With regard to the learning management systems (or VLEs), there is around a 50/50 split between those institutions that have stayed with the current provider and those that have moved. Reviews of student records systems, on the other hand, have up to now not resulted in a change of system but a re-implementation to align the software more closely with the student lifecycle.

A modular approach

In recent years there has been a trend to develop or procure modules to work with the key business systems. The focus has tended to be on areas such as taught postgraduate admissions where there has been a high level of competition and rewards are high.

However, the advent of greater competition for undergraduate students and a stronger emphasis on the student experience has resulted in more institutions investigating developing additional modules.

While some modules introduce new functionality, others replicate functionality that already exists in current systems but which the institution feels no longer meets their requirements. So the emphasis is still best of breed — but at a more granular level.

The cost of change

One of the primary reasons for the high level of stability is the fact that many systems are heavily embedded in the operations of the institution. The cost of change for the whole system is consequently high. This is reflected in the development of “add-on” modules where improved functionality will lead to a competitive advantage or will streamline processes and so enhance the student experience.

However, we are also starting to see institutions utilising two separate systems for aspects of the same functional area. Implementing change at a modular level is less costly and will deliver business benefits more rapidly. That said, integrating different systems and modules into a coherent business system is difficult but is an overhead that many institutions now realise is worth the value delivered.

Interoperability and reuse

The deployment of additional modules, or task specific applications, results in an added complexity when institutions are seeking to use the data for reporting, planning or measurement. Similarly, with the growth in the use of learner analytics we are seeing data being extracted from a wide range of systems — some of which were not designed to provide data feeds for other purposes.

Consequently, any new demand for data often places an additional burden on the institution needing to supply or use that data.

Opportunities for rationalisation exist and real-time data can be interpreted as where data is processed fast enough for the purpose so my real hope is that any consideration of real time data won’t be done in isolation. HESA’s Data Futures programme will offer more timely access to student data so OfS will clearly have been talking to HESA with regard to their anticipated data needs. If not, or if it is looking for something different, the words of the 2011 white paper “students at the heart of the system” about reducing the regulatory burden could ring rather hollow.

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