Collecting comprehensive data is a colossal undertaking, says Brian Ramsden. The Higher Education Statistics Agency was incorporated in November 1992, following proposals in the White Paper Higher Education - a new framework for a unified higher education sector and the introduction of greater coherence in statistical data collection. HESA was set up as an independent data collection organisation to provide meaningful unbiased management information to the sector and policy makers.
To reflect the considerable changes within the sector, HESA was required to develop, for implementation in 1994/95, completely new record structures in the key areas of students, staff and finance. In order to provide a management information system as flexible and responsive as possible, the data was to be collected on an individual basis for both students and staff - something which was new to the sector as a whole.The finance return was to be made a comprehensive record of the finance of the whole sector, collected on an individual institution basis, also a new development.
The first record to be collected was the individualised student record, which was developed in time for the first data submission (a subset of the complete record) in December 1994. For that submission, both HESA's and the institutions' internal database systems, as well as electronic data submission, validation and data analysis systems all had to be in place, fully tested and working. In total, 75 million validated items of data representing 1.5 million student records returned by the 182 institutions were received between December 1994 and March 1995.
This data had to be analysed and turned round to the various funding councils and education departments, and thanks to development work and the data-handling technology employed by HESA, the requirements of these statutory customers were met. Individual tabulations were also supplied to all the reporting institutions in order that checks could be carried out by the institutions thus further validating the submission process, and fine-tuning the definitions applied to the data.
HESA's brief includes the dissemination of the data. It must be supplied to statutory customers and back to institutions themselves, but also to all interested parties. HESA released a press notice on higher education student numbers, and in July published a data report on the characteristics of students in higher education. This was the first time that a publication was able to draw on strictly comparable data from the whole sector, and was able to make information widely available during the academic year to which it relates.
From August 1995 until February 1996, institutions will be submitting their full student record for 1994/95, including exam results and student load information, individualised staff data (September 30), non-finance data (December 31) and the first destination return (February 28). At the same time they will be starting the whole round of data submission for 1995/96 with the sub-set of the individualised student record.
Although the structures for all records are now in place, constant clarification, definition and refinement of the records are needed. Liaison with the institutions, and with statutory customers, will continue to be one of the main features of the work of the agency. It is also desirable that the records remain stable for a period, and HESA is striving to achieve this within the next two years.
HESA does not intend to be purely a repository of data, and is developing wide-ranging publications, recognising that different areas of higher education need different types of information. HESA has tried to develop publications of a general nature, reference volumes and volumes aimed at providing the research community with a considerable amount of data on specific topics.
It is impossible for HESA to cater for every eventuality, and in order to deal with non-standard data requests Hesa is developing its ability to handle telephone enquiries and to provide an on-line information service.
The on-line information service is an on-going project and when complete will provide interactive access to derived subsets of data through the World Wide Web. The first phase of this project will be launched following publication of press releases relating to data collected between July and September 1995.
Since HESA intends to make data about the higher education sector widely available, an awareness of the confidentiality of the data it holds is an ethos within which the agency carries out its work. A continuing concern is the development and monitoring of procedures governing the release of data.
HESA and the higher education sector have come a long way in a short time - together they have put in place a system to collect and analyse information about the whole sector within two years, and have set the framework for the future development of information collection and release. Although it has not always been plain sailing for all parties involved, the fact that so much has been achieved bodes well for the future, and is a tribute to the cooperation and sheer hard work of all those involved.
Brian Ramsden is chief executive of the Higher Education Statistics Agency.