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Data decisions: What information do we need about Universities?

  • 1 April 2019
  • By Rachel Hewitt

Last week the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) published their consultation on the future of the data it collects, in response to their changing role as the designated data body. To me, this exemplified the change in the way higher education regulation has changed since the Higher Education Research Act (HERA).

I may say this with some form of rose-tinted glasses, as someone who used to work at HESA, but, to date, the approach to higher education data collection has been fairly collaborative. The funding bodies across the UK, including HEFCE as was, would tell HESA annually what their data requirements were, HESA would establish how to meet these through data specifications and consult with universities on what the impact would be of these changes. This would culminate in a negotiation about what new data were and weren’t collected. Sometimes this would go the way of the funding bodies, and sometimes it would go the way of the universities, depending on how vital the request was and the level of burden in collecting it.

This appears to have all changed with the latest HESA consultation, in the name of the Office for Students reducing burden. The data collections have been siphoned up into ‘statutory’ and ‘non-statutory’, with a lot of data previously required in England now under non-statutory – and HESA point out that non-statutory will have to come under a separate, voluntary, cost. The data which now fall into the category of non-statutory include all information on non-academic staff and on university estates, as indicated in the Office for Students data strategy (and which I wrote about at the time).

In a world of increased financial instability and increasing subscription costs (including those from the Office for Students), my instinct is that it’s unlikely there are going to be many providers who would choose to sign up to this additional voluntary cost. However, it is not clear whether these changes will actually end in reduced burden: if universities instead spend a significant amount of time responding to freedom of information requests about the makeup of their workforce, they may end up pining for the days of a comprehensive staff record.

The proposed changes mean we would have no information on the working conditions of non-academic staff, no information on the equality and diversity represented in over half of universities’ workforce. UCU have regularly criticised the existing data for not being comprehensive enough to have full information about casualisation. Through collaborative work between UCU, UCEA and HESA, progressive steps have been made, including moving to collect information on zero-hour and hourly paid contracts. However, under the new model, none of this information or any other will be available for non-academic staff. I would not be surprised if a consultation response was entered by UCU speaking out against these changes.

This also clearly demonstrates a divergence across the UK. HESA provides a caveat upfront:

‘As HERA has been the impetus for this activity, the specific link between HERA and various requirements has been identified throughout the consultation. However, this does not suggest that it is considered in any way as being more important than the requirements of the other nations within the UK or any other statutory requirements.’

But without the existence of HERA, it is unlikely this form of consultation would exist. It appears from the document that the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Ireland data requirements remain largely the same. We therefore could end up with a situation where there is a huge divergence in the data available in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland compared to England, with significantly less information available about English universities.

This leaves me with two key thoughts:

  1. Who is data on higher education providers for? Technically HESA exists to provide data for its statutory customers, made up of the funding / regulatory bodies and government. But it cannot do this without the consensus support of universities who are also huge users of this data. Plus, as an evidence-led sector, surely we should be able to represent to the public what the make-up of our entire university workforce looks like?
  2. Of course, universities could opt to continue to collect this data, but it is much harder to justify doing so when it is seen as voluntary and up against competing demands for resources. Equality and diversity staff and estates directors could previously rely on blaming HEFCE to justify why this data had to be collected. It appears sometimes the appearance of a reduction in burden is not quite as clear cut as it may initially seem.

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