Yesterday the long anticipated (at least by those of us with an interest in HE data) Office for Students (OfS) data strategy was published. This provides greater clarity on the OfS understanding of their future role as they approach the halfway point through their transition year.
Much within the data strategy probably could have been anticipated. There is support for data providing an evidence base for decision making, greater transparency and use of open data and reducing the burden of data collection. On this final point, the OfS explicitly sets out the data they no longer require, at least between 2018 and 2021. Two examples of this are information:
- on non-academic staff (currently collected from the HESA Staff record); and
- on universities estates (currently collected through the HESA Estates Management record).
The OfS desire to reduce the burden of data collection is admirable, but will be challenging to implement. I’m sure some will welcome the reduction in their data collection activity on university staff and estates. However, the OfS no longer requiring this data for their statutory purposes does not mean the interest in these areas disappears. There has been much coverage of the precarious nature of jobs within universities, including a piece run by WonkHE on who works within universities. Without the requirement for this information on non-academic staff to be held, we will no longer have a clear picture of the type of contracts that these staff work on, the type of people these staff are or where these two factors intersect. This will make it significantly more difficult to measure for example, the gender balance of non-academic staff in senior positions.
Arguments can similarly be made, although perhaps less convincingly, about the need for data on university estates. University estates hold a significant footprint in the UK, reportedly at seven times the size of Tesco in 2013 (I don’t have the recent data to hand on Tesco or universities but would imagine this has only increased in the last 5 years). The Estates Management record also holds a wealth of information about their energy consumption and carbon emissions, which given current concerns over climate change are surely critical.
Of course, the lack of requirement for this data by the regulator does not mean these data collections must cease to exist. But can universities justify resources being allocated to these activities when they are no longer a statutory requirement? This raises the question that is forever being grappled with in UK higher education: how do we maintain the fine balance between demands for data and the burden that this brings?