The state of data in higher education

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Capita AGILIT-e’s knowledge partner session at THE Live 2019 will discuss how institutions, sector-level capabilities and bodies that measure the sector through data must adapt and change, writes Andy Youell

Over the past 50 years higher education has experienced a massive shift in the role of data to support operations, improve knowledge, and understand, develop and monitor policy. The explosion in information technology has re-cast data and statistics from the margins of debate to become one of, if not the central tool in the development and delivery of funding, regulation and a broader understanding of the sector.

In 1963, the Robbins Report struggled because of a dearth of national statistics and this led to the establishment of the Universities Statistical Record in 1968. The USR was a sector-owned body building a database of student, staff and finance data using the UCCA computer. Data streams covering graduate destinations and “liberal adult education” were added during the 1970s.

By the late 1980s, HE funding was increasingly formula-driven and the restructuring of the sector in 1992 resulted in the creation of HESA, the post-binary sector’s UK-wide data body. Since then data have become ever more central in policy development and increasingly weaponised in political debate. Data underpin new developments in regulation and public information, and the HE sector is increasingly having to respond to the judgement and ranking of its teaching, research and community activities through all manner of metrics.

This is happening in a broader political climate that is exploiting data and communications technologies to spread all of ideas, facts and misinformation to influence the way that people perceive the world and their place in it. Our relationship with data is now a key issue for individuals, organisations and society.

At THE Live on 28 November, I will unpack some of the issues that we face because of the data revolution and consider the past, present and future of data in three broad areas.

First is the issue of data through the lens of HE providers. What capabilities do providers need in to survive and thrive in a data-driven world? Do HE providers have the skills, structures and leadership to meet the challenges and opportunities that data create – and what needs to change?

Second, I will consider the HE sector’s data infrastructure and capabilities. How should it respond to an increasingly data-driven policy, political and regulatory environment? Are the existing structures of sector-level data processing and policy engagement fit for a world of real-time regulation and weaponised information?

Third is the perspective of those who aspire to judge, measure and regulate the sector through data. Higher education is a complex and dynamic world in which the desire for neat categorisations and simple narratives presents a tremendous challenge to those who try to measure and understand the sector and its students. How can they achieve robust and meaningful results?

Andy Youell has been at the leading edge of data issues across higher education for more than 25 years. He will be joining THE Live 2019 for the Capita AGILIT-e knowledge partner session at 13.30 on 28 November

For more information about Capita AGILIT-e, visit www.capita-agilit-e.co.uk