Delays to vital UK sector data ‘unconscionable’

Student statistics due out in January now not expected until August, leaving universities ‘looking in the rear-view mirror’

May 16, 2024
Source: iStock/ Antonio Suarez Vega

Another delay to the release of key UK student statistics is making planning ahead increasingly difficult for universities during a “volatile” time, a former universities minister has warned.

The Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa) introduced a new sector-wide student data model for its 2022-23 figures, although they were still expected to be published in January in line with previous years.

However, following a series of shorter delays, Hesa, which became part of Jisc in 2022, recently announced that the student statistics will not be published until August.

Chris Skidmore, who served as universities minister under Theresa May and Boris Johnson, said the usual 18-month lag on the data has always been a “serious deficiency creating increasingly significant problems for a sector dealing with increasingly volatile recruitment markets”.

“That the data is now two years out of date is unconscionable,” he told Times Higher Education.

“The sector cannot navigate the increasingly challenging environment by looking in the rear-view mirror.”

The Data Futures programme was designed to implement a “new sector-wide approach to the way higher education providers return data about their students”.

The model aims to transition to multiple in-year releases from the 2024-25 collection onwards.

recent report by the International Higher Education Commission (IHEC), which Mr Skidmore chairs, characterised Hesa as one of the “significant data deficiencies” within the UK system which are driving poor policy.

“We need better recognition that without data we are acting with our arms tied behind our backs,” said Mr Skidmore.

“Unless Hesa delivers a culture change, we will see further prominence given to private sector providers of current and future HE data from the likes of Enroly, Studyportals and IDP Connect.

“We can, should and must do better.”

The IHEC report, which also criticised the UK’s controversial net migration figures for including students, highlighted Australia’s data ecosystem as having many advantages over the UK’s.

Mark Corver, founder of the dataHE consultancy, said the student record is one of the sector’s greatest competitive assets, but changing it is difficult, and the reforms have triggered repeated delays at short notice to pivotal releases.

“It could hardly have come at a worse time for the sector, with uncertainty about postgraduate, international, completion rates and accommodation higher than normal,” Dr Corver said.

“Some have told us that key planning work has been delayed or suspended, others that the duration of the checks seemingly needed is introducing doubts how reliable these data will be.”

Dr Corver said a long time series and dependability were a big part of the value of the publication.

“The publication meltdown this year is a reminder that bold changes come with big costs and high risks,” he added.

Rob Phillpotts, Jisc’s chief data officer, said the decision to delay the release came after consultation with statutory bodies which required resubmissions of data.

“We recognise the ongoing impacts of the delay and the pressure this puts on data users,” he said.

“We ask that HE providers and other data users contact us directly to discuss their needs and Jisc will do everything we can to help.”

Mr Philpotts added: “In April we completed our quality assessment of student data submitted by 12 January 2024 working to a stringent quality framework. This assessment established that the data met the standards required by the Code of Practice for Statistics and was fit for publication. However, Jisc has a range of statutory duties including to the Office for Students and the other funders in the devolved nations (SFC, Hefcw and DfENI). These regulators and funding bodies required data re-submissions from a number of providers by 30 April 2024 to meet their specific needs. In consultation with these bodies it was decided that published data should be delayed to align with the data used for regulation and funding.”

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Reader's comments (1)

Chris Skidmore is absolutely right about the need for better and more timely data, including on international students, whether they study in the UK or wholly overseas. These are the goals of two transformations currently underway. HESA's review of the Aggregate Offshore Record will result in more detailed data on transnational education where students study overseas for UK qualifications. The Data Futures project meanwhile has the ultimate goal of in year data collection and publication allowing timely analysis of HE provision in the UK including a future-proofed data model. The first year of data collection under the new model posed significant challenges for HESA, statutory bodies, and HE providers. Those challenges were tackled by committed data professionals across the sector and data was submitted by January 2024. Our enhanced quality assessment led to a recommendation to publish in April 2024. HESA publication is pending approval of funders and specifically a decision by the regulator in England.