Proposals to end the compulsory collection of data on non-academic staff in the key figures on the higher education workforce have been criticised as a “retrograde step” that neglects their “crucial role” in universities.
The Higher Education Statistics Agency, the designated data body in England, is consulting on the services that it offers to higher education providers.
The consultation on future data collection requirements for UK universities includes a proposal to make the gathering of information on non-academic staff “voluntary rather than compulsory”.
Paul Cottrell, acting general secretary of the University and College Union, has written to the universities minister, Chris Skidmore, to say that the union is “deeply concerned” by the proposal.
He says that the more than 217,000 non-academic staff in the UK play a “crucial role in the success of our universities” and that reliable data about their employment are “extremely important”.
There are concerns that the proposed change would “greatly reduce the transparency of our institutions” and undermine the government’s ability to fully represent the economic and social impact of the sector, he writes.
Mr Cottrell urges the minister to give a “clear direction to Hesa” that data collection on non-academic staff is “important and should continue to be compulsory” for all institutions in England.
The acting general secretary calls for an extension to the consultation, subsequently extended to 3 May, saying it is “regrettable” that it is taking place over the Easter period when many university staff are on holiday.
Ursula Kelly, a higher education analyst and director of Viewforth Consulting, said that she was “shocked” by the proposal on non-academic staff data.
“It is such a retrograde step. It takes us way back to the bad old days when there wasn’t enough data, nobody knew what higher education was actually about in terms of its importance to the economy,” she said. “How and why the [Office for Students] has decided to not look at non-academic staff is beyond belief.”
The “changes would represent a foolish act of self-harm by the sector,” said a UCU spokesman.
“People will have little redress when it comes to issues of equality as the data for huge numbers of staff on sex, ethnicity and disability is no longer collected,” the spokesman added.
A spokesman for Hesa said that it had a statutory duty to collect information required by the Office for Students for its regulatory functions.
The OfS’ data strategy, published in November, confirmed that it will not have a regulatory requirement for data about non-academic staff.
“There will therefore be no statutory obligation on higher education providers in England to include non-academic staff in the Hesa staff record,” the Hesa spokesman explained.
“We will continue to collect and disseminate data where sufficient higher education providers in England see the value in the collection and use of data beyond statutory and regulatory purposes,” the spokesman added.
Richard Puttock, the OfS’ head of data, foresight and analysis, said that it “aims to be a low-burden regulator”.
“This means we only impose regulatory burden on providers where there is a clear regulatory requirement to do so.”
The OfS encourages Hesa and providers to work together to “collect data beyond what is formally required for regulatory purposes where providers recognise value in the collation of such information”.
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