Who wants to be Designated Data Body?

This weeks HESA/Jisc merger noises open up an opportunity for new data bodies to compete for designation.

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

The news today was far from a surprise.

A merger between Jisc (the sector digital agency and sometime “edtech” that currently runs non-statutory bespoke data purchase and HEIDI plus) and HESA (the current designated data body and architect of everything we know and love about sector statistics) has been one of the sector’s worst kept secrets since the time of the Bell review.

The trouble is that the end of HESA as we know it (as an independent entity) would also mean that we need a new Designated Data Body (DDB).

The rules set out in the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 mean that designation cannot pass between organisations without a new tendering operation – and so today the Office for Students fire the starting pistol on a new competition with an invitation to express interest.

We’re at the early stages here – there’s nothing to say this merger will actually go ahead, but it is worth thinking about some of the issues that the document sets out.

Runners and riders

In all honesty it is very likely that the new Jisc-HESA mega-agency will take the role again. Both organisations have a role in developing the long delayed Data Futures project, only HESA has the skills and knowledge to run the collection and publication exercises due this autumn. Combine this with HESA’s continued role (and popularity) UK wide and you’d be unwise to put money on anything else.

At a push you could maybe see someone like Tribal taking a punt, perhaps one of the big governmental contractors like Capita. Nobody else in the sector is likely to have the capacity or expertise to go for it – with the possible but disqualified exception of the Office for Students itself (the hope from that quarter might be that no suitable agency is identified, OfS would take on the role in such an emergency situation though gods know what that means for the fragile UK wide higher education data ecosystem).

Despite numerous representations, Wonkhe will not be expressing an interest on this occasion.

The problem with the role

It’s widely reckoned that the accelerated Jisc-HESA merger is in part due to the financial pressure of the DDB role. The statutory component of HESA’s work can now only be funded by subscription, and every penny it charges needs to be justified to an Office for Students that is keen to drive down subscription costs for providers (although the OfS subscription dwarfs what is due to HESA and designated quality body QAA).

There’s not many corners to cut with the DDB role – you need high quality technical and policy staff (including the fabulous liaison function), you need rock solid secure data storage and collection, and you need to command the respect of the sector. It’s an expensive business – and one, frankly, that should be covered centrally rather than by subscription. Numerous OfS changes to expectations and expected future activity (looking here squarely at Data Futures) don’t come cheap.

The idea of a separate statistical agency is also anomalous in an increasingly centralised world that sees data collection, publication, and analysis (along with policy, now) sit with in DfE for every other education sector. There’s no HESA for FE or Schools, however hard specialist news sources in those sectors wish otherwise – we are genuinely blessed to have a designated data body, however badly it has been treated.

Anyway, if you are interested in knocking together a viable DDB the deadline for expressions of interest is just a few days away (11 March) whether or not the merger goes ahead. You’ll need to have some answers to the questions above and more, and be able to step into HESA’s elegantly tailored shoes at the start of the next academic year.  All expressions will be published in full.

Leave a Reply