The Green Paper on higher education in England placed something else alongside students at the heart of the new system – data and information. As we move further towards a marketised sector in England, the importance of data becomes ever more pronounced.
Good data allow students to make informed choices, allow policymakers and regulators to make better decisions, promote public trust and confidence in the system, enable institutions to be competitive and provide a lever to incentivise or penalise behaviour in the absence of public funding. Good data also lead to efficiency – both through exposing opportunities where efficiencies can be made, and through providing competitive data for benchmarking purposes. All of these themes are present in the Green Paper, and are also prominent in the thinking of the other three countries of the UK.
The Higher Education Statistics Agency is just one month away from closing its Data Futures consultation into the transformation of our data collection systems and we are about to embark on a series of workshops around the UK, at which we hope to have a dialogue with the sector about how we make sure that providers will have the information about their students that they need to stay efficient and competitive.
Just as the regulatory and funding architecture of the HE sector needs to be upgraded to take account of a new environment, so does the sector’s data infrastructure, which is struggling to reflect the diversity and dynamism of today’s system. This infrastructure is fragmented, and in some places inefficient and out of date. With data becoming the fuel of the new public policy, rectifying these problems is urgent.
While changes undoubtedly need to be made, some things should not be lost in transition. These include the high degree of trust that can be placed in the UK’s higher education data owing to the independence and impartiality of its acquisition and processing mechanisms, the UK-wide service that the infrastructure provides and the aspiration to make as much of the core data as open and as accessible as possible.
In essence, this is a set of proposals to move to frequent in-year collections of data (beginning with student data), while at the same time reducing the overall number of separate collections made by different agencies. Through transforming the technology platform, redesigning the data specification and overhauling the sector’s data governance structures, the principle of “collect once, use multiple times” is achievable.
Further developments can build out from this – providing enhanced analytical tools for users and providers, opening up larger stores of data for analysis and innovation, linking datasets across government departments and policy areas to improve decision-making and reducing the transactional costs associated with data flows around the sector.
The potential benefits for all parties are considerable. For policymakers and regulators, it will deliver accurate, high-quality data more frequently throughout the cycle, enhancing decision-making and providing early warning of emerging problems. For higher education providers it will better support their own strategic planning and decision-making in a more competitive environment. It will reduce costs and generate efficiencies that could lead to redeploying resource internally, and will ensure that statutory responsibilities can be met in the most cost-effective way.
Most importantly, for students and the wider public, it will ensure that there is a source of trustworthy and reliable data available when they need it, to make informed decisions about the future.
Paul Clark is chief executive of the Higher Education Statistics Agency.