Westminster Forum – Higher Education Data Landscape

I recently attended this event in London, which provide some great speakers, and useful networking opportunities, as well as showing what others are doing with HE data, and where we might want to do more. These notes taken at the event provide an insight for colleagues; I also have the slides from the presentations for those who want to look in more detail.

The event was opened by Sir Tim Wilson, former VC of University of Hertfordshire, who referenced the 2011 white paper which had asked to lessen the burden on information provision, but noted the level of complexity and diversity due to different providers in a more heterogeneous sector

Paul Greatrix (Registrar at University of Nottingham)

Paul introduced the ideas behind redesigning information landscape. He raised his concern about regulatory landscape also and government requirements. He identified that provision of more information does not necessarily mean better decision making

Scale of challenge for HEIs was the need to respond to 550 different external reporting requirements in addition to any internal reporting

In reference to league table providers, Dr Greatrix identified plenty if objections, but HEIs care because they have  impact on potential students and the wider public, even though league table results can lead to perverse behaviours such as VCs and senior managers focusing on the wrong things.

In conclusion, he identified an uncertain future but with grounds for optimism. The fundamental issues were around regulation and the need for proper data, organised in the right way. It was not that there is not too little information re HE but that it needs to be underpinned with proper IAG for those with no previous family HE participation.

Malcolm Scott ( BIS Digital economy directorate)

Everyone is talking about data but there is nothing new about big data.  The reason we a etalking about if now is due to the actual volume of data, massive increase in volume, growth of technology to sort data and bring it together, and the ability to get value out of it. Data can provide value to existing and new industries.


Government t has designated big data as one of 8 great technologies and has Looked at skills, infrastructure and hygiene factors that must be right to be able to exploit data. Major investments have already been made such as the Turing Institute and large km array telescope

Importantly he raised this issue: How do we get managers to realise data can make org better?

This can be alternatively expressed as the organisation will lose advantage of it doesn’t use data properly.

He suggested that on the supply side there is shortage of big data skills, expecting 13-23% rise in demand for big data staff in UK by 2017, noting that the people needed are not just computer scientists

Johnny Rich (push.co.uk)

Johnny pointed out that the information landscape for students is confusing and that Students don’t know what they need to know, Eg what’s it really like to study x at y?
As students go through jungle they will latch on to things that they recognise, eg league tables, names of courses. These may not actually be the useful things, as they will only spend a maximum of 1/3 of their time studying

He proposed that many information requirements are an unnecessary burden but a necessary evil. Sometimes data or information provided can be a part of marketing, but not what we want to know about- eg traffic light health guidelines on a sandwich wrapper. Regulation and the manufacturer might want this, but the customer isn’t likely to make a purchase decision on this. Is KIS is like this?

He proposed that KIS…

  • ignores the information needs of the disenfranchised
  • only tells them what they think they want to know
  • is better than nothing

and thta the NSS was about:

  • Satisfaction is not quality
  • Enhancement not choice

The NSS  however indirectly affects choice as it feeds into league tables.

He proposed a Marketing 101 approach – find your point of difference eg shampoo adverts, and start from there.

Graeme Wise (NUS assistant director policy)

Graeme introduced the policy context in which HE data is used and alignment of interests between data provides, collectors and users.

He was anticipating research on financial outcomes of HE from different institutions, using combined data from SLC, ,tax records as these linked data sets will provide model of earnings and outcomes from different unis and subjects which would be a driver for further marketisation
Looking at other public policy agenda- public sector data and fashion for analytics- he proposed the provocative thought of industries moving from production to service (eg software was previously a product, now a subscription service, eg Microsoft, media industries) and will education become that kind of industry, with a move from students as consumers to students as producers.
He looked at the ecology of data collection that spans student life cycle with the consolidation of data at output end, whereas an area for most attention is on the daily experience of students.
Fashion for analytics is not a passing fad and this is a challenge to sector – it is possible to get itvery wrongly not being there, or by doing it badly..
He proposed that in ideal world, everything collected for external purposes should be available for internal purposes, and need people with insight and experience as well as analysis skills to apply to real world student experience issues, eg retention, learning space utilisation, curricula. He suggested we involve student representatives to legitimise and shape the work


Phil Richards (JISC)

Phil had 2 main messages – Overcoming barriers to sharing, and making data a priority for senior management

The barriers to sharing were proposed under three headings: Co opetiton, Compulsion and Coherence.

Making data a priority for senior management came under 4 Rs:

  • Reputation– league tables, Unistats, research metrics, Which? Guide,
  • Recruitment and retention-this is an area for  investment decision for software- for example the ability to identify at risk students either before they arrive or how they behave when on campus
  • Risk mitigation – in a new HE paradigm we need detailed scenario planning (however who had considered removal of SNC in last year’s planning?)

Andy Youell (Director HEDIIP)

Andy started by considering the future of data and information, noting that many organisations were not designed to keep up with technology meaning that ad hoc solutions emerge, frequently in silos, which provide a sort term result only.

He asked- What is “here” like? There are Over 500 data collections which lead to duplication, inconsistency, lack of data sharing, lack of comparability across collection eg in sometjign simple such as the definitional difference between a course and a programme

Also highlighted were data management and governance issues,,eg security, quality, accessibility. There is often low awareness of where data is held in institution, low awareness of where is being supplied from and to whom.

The HEDIIP vision was one of new systems that reduce burden for data providers and improve quality, timeliness and accessibility of data and info about HE

The benefits are to: reduce the cost of data (duplication, inefficiencies); increase value of data (analytical capability, quality and timelines linking using standard identifiers), and improve information (clarity).

John Gledhill (Tribal – supplier of SITS)

John pointed out that we tend to sum up 3-4 yrs of education in snapshot data and that student data collection is low resolution and low frame rate currently. In future we might need to capture data that we think might be worthless, for instance working in areas of unstructured data eg Facebook, Twitter, RSS, as well as structured databases and file systems.

Steve Egan (HEFCE)

Steve talked of the need for accurate data definitions to protect those who want to play the game properly, but questioned how we can produce timely data, eg HESA? For example, for widening participation, the  data is 2 years out of date, and this has implication for funding.

Since students make decisions on range of information some of which is influenced by data, then they need to be able to trust the data, for example claims for employability, noting the weaknesses of DLHE data.

Government also needs good data to be able to identify what is happening with part time students, SIV subjects and accountability. Better and more timely information will lead to better decision making

Summary by Sir Tim Wilson

Are we using external data internally?
Is data collection and analysis a cost or an investment?
Have to change because if we don’t it won’t get better. Some people enjoy being victims and complaining. Has to change to make things better for students and all stakeholders
Willingness to move to a common good, which is not the same as uniformity.
We have the power and knowledge to do data analysis which needs transformational leadership, vision and innovation.

Employment of Graduates

In last week’s Times Higher, we had one of our rare mentions. However, it wasn’t to publish good news. The most recent data on employment of graduates from the 2012-13 cohort have been published by HESA and these showed:

“According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, 92.1 per cent of university leavers were in employment or further study six months after graduating in 2012-13, up from 90.8 per cent in the previous year.”


“Universities with the lowest employment and further study rates are London Metropolitan University (81.4 per cent), the University of Bolton (82.4 per cent) and Staffordshire University (84 per cent).”

This doesn’t look great as a headline statistic, particularly with all the work that colleagues have done on promoting the Staffordshire Graduate attributes, in particular the employability programme on a number of champion awards.

I decided to have a look at some of the numbers for the last few years (recognising that we are starting to see an improvement in graduate outcomes and employment as described in league tables) so there seems to be an anomaly, and consult with those who know more than me.

In league tables, the career prospects score relates to percentage in graduate level work and higher level PG while employment indicator in HESA data relates to percentage in (any) work or further study.  So it is possible for us to have a comparatively low employment indicator with an improving career prospects score.

So that starts to explain why scores in league tables are different.

Another really important factor, and one which is ignored in the Times Higher article, is that because institutions are not directly comparable, then results cannot be compared directly. The benchmarks for institutions also need to be taken into account, which allow for subject mix etc.

“if the benchmarks were ignored such comparisons would not take account of the effects of different subject profiles or the different entry qualifications of the students. In general, indicators from two institutions should only be compared if the institutions are similar. If the benchmarks are not similar, then this suggests that the subject / entry qualification profiles of the institutions are not the same, and so differences between the indicators could be due to these different profiles rather than to different performances by the two institutions.”

So what we could do is to look at our own performance is consider how our scores differ from our benchmark score. The table below shows this.

Employment indicator (including further study)
year Base
or studying
+/- total UK indicator missed benchmark? (%)
09-10 1310 1150 87.8 88.2 0.81   90.4 -0.4
10-11 1365 1145 83.8 88.1 0.84 90.3 -4.3
11-12 1455 1230 84.4 88.5 0.80 90.8 -4.1
12-13 1625 1365 84.0 90.0 0.75 92.1 -6.0

Continue reading

Survey of Vice Chancellors

Today, PA Consulting published their 6th annual survey of vice chancellors of UK universities in “Here be dragons, how universities are navigating the uncharted waters of higher education”.

We had a sneak peek of some of the content last week, both in an article in THE and also at our leadership conference, where Mike Boxall, who authored the report, was the keynote speaker.

It’s fascinating to see how the leaders of our universities perceive their environment, and also to get an understanding of how the sector as a whole sees itself.

As in previous years, VCs are confident about the strengths f their own institutions but not in the resilience of the overall system with 89% having confidence in their own institution, but only 4% being very confident in the system.

The big change noted this year by PA is in attitudes towards government – policies were criticised which on the one hand forces universities to compete in an open market while at the same time being contradicted by measures that constrained the market. Key examples cited are initial teaching training and visas for international students.

PA provides a commentary on their findings with the following key points:

  • VCs see other institutions as being vulnerable to shifting student demand, declining student markets, falling research funding and strategic inertia. It just doesn’t apply to their own insitution.
  • Many identified that future winners will be those who are proactive and innovative, while at the same time stating that on campus teaching offered the greatest opportunities for growth
  • VCs identified that their risk management systems were robust even though they had not yet been tested in anger
  • PA identified that the conservatism inherent in the university system may explain the sector’s anger towards government which has removed the previous paradigm of benign and stable certainties.

Certainly worth a read, and for those interested in strategic thinking for universities, it’s a document that should be considered in the light of other work by Mike Boxall and colleagues, as covered here.

StaffFest 2014 Leadership Conference

This year our first keynote speaker was Mike Boxall of PA Consulting (and author of “Oligarchs, Innovators and Zombies” amongst others).

Mike started by looking at Levitt’s definition of marketing myopia, proposing that universities don’t know what business they are in, and that the biggest threat is that they might be an irrelevance in a changed world.


After introducing a “new normal” for higher education, Mike took a look at a number of the prophets of doom, including Clay Christensen (who I’ll be referencing in my Faculty L&T talks next week) and Sir Michael Barber of “An Avalanche is Coming” infamy, Mike proposed 4 different groups of universities: the oligarchs, the not-yetis, the zombies and the innovators, where each group was classified on the relationship between their balance of strengths and weaknesses and their strategic focus.


Mike then explored 4 possible HE futures: university rules; co-opetition; learning lives, and wiki learning, all as shown in the photos below.



Finally we were presented with the question of where did we want to play?


On Monday, PA Consulting will publish their annual survey of the opinions of UK Vice Chancellors. Mie made a few references to this at the beginning of his talk, and I’ll be providing my own take on the report once it’s available.

Learning and Teaching Conference 2014

This year’s University L&T conference, run as part of StaffFest2014 had as its theme Student success: raising attainment. Attendance was better than it has been in previous years, which was good news, but more of this later.

An introduction and welcome by the VC, Prof Michael Gunn, was followed by an introduction by me, where I looked at our league table position, emphasising the importance of student attainment. Using the strapline “we can be better than this”, I also introduced some of the data around attainment of BME students, before summarising the outline for the day and introducing our speakers.

Prof Liz Thomas

Liz spoke about Inclusive Pedagogy, introducing the 4 outcome indicators used by HEFCE – achievement of a degree; classification; employment, and graduate outcome. She explored the key themes of engagement:

  • Active and collaborative learning
  • Participation in challenging acadmei activities
  • Formative communication with academic staff
  • Involvement in enriching educational experiences
  • Feeling legitimated and supported by university learning communities

Successful engagement involves an overlap between social, service and academic spheres, as below:


Liz also introduced data on differential attainment based on gender, ethnicity and disability, as well as looking at the impact of students from the different quintiles of the Polar3 classification.

Liz emphasised the importance of engaging all staff, not just academic, and said that the partnerships between staff and students were a key strategic enabler.


Dr Winston Morgan

Focussing in now on a specific issue, Winston took us through ideas on how to solve the attainment gap between BMR (or BAME) students and white students.

As well as presenting plenty of data to illustrate the existence of an attainment gap, Winston presented key questions to ask about our institution, before we start to understand how to solve the gap:


The main factors that determine or drive the gap are:

  • Prior knowledge
  • Student age on entry
  • Performance of white stdunets
  • Other more difficult to identify factors (academic confidence of BAME students)

If qualifications on entry are the driver of the attainment gap, then the institution must change either the admissions policy or change the L&T practices to suit the admissions policy. For example, on admission policy, students must be selected by specific subjects and grades, not just UCAS points When admitting students form BTEC backgrounds, then the entry tariff must be raised by 20-30% to allow for their previous learning styles. An increase of 30-40% should be considered for the tariff from access courses.

If the admissions policy can’t be changed, then Winston proposed changing the L&T practices to sit the admissions, by adopting the practices of BTEC and Access programmes, ie, fewer exams, multiple assessments, lower SSRs. Finally, provide the skills so that students can cope with the challenges and assessments of university.

Winston concluded by looking at the “identity gap”, as shown below:


Followed by messages to close the racial identity gap:


This was a challenging talk, and even though Winston spoke for longer than intended, I wasn’t going to ask him to stop! Over the next few days I heard so many positive comments about what a great talk it was.

Nonetheless, it does leave us with some significant challenges, some of which the BME project group can look into, but the key questions will be:

  • How much do we know about the issue at Staffordshire?
  • How could we change our admissions policy?
  • How could we change our L&T practices?
  • How could we address the issue of racial identity, and do we have role models in senior posts?

Paul Mangnall

The final keynote speaker was Paul Mangnall, Principal of Stoke on Trent 6th Form College. Paul provided a quick run through the processes used in schools (and in FE) maintain and ensure consistency.

Paul ran through the processes of teaching observations, noting that one observation a year led to a “cup final” scenario, with possible over preparation, unrepresentative performances, and increased pressure to perform. Instead, the process now involved observing a member of staff twice over a three day window.

  • The formal lesson observations were operationlised by:
  • Each member of staff formally observed twice per year
  • Observation window – any lesson to be observed within a 3 day period
  • Key strengths and areas for improvement identified for “close the loop”
  • Holistic view – included student progress against target grade, assessment, and student files
  • Trained observation team, formal moderation process
  • Links to departmental and individual performance management targets

The interesting thing about Pauls’ talk was that he described the same kind of observation processes that are used already in other universities. There is clearly scope for us to learn from other sectors and institutions.

Plenary sessions in the afternoon were on: the work of the BME project group; the Paul Hamlyn ”What Works” project group; the new personal tutoring policy;, and supporting students through the enabling centre. The final question time provided an opportunity for speakers to respond to queries about BME attainment, transitions to HE, electronic assessment and digital literacy

In conclusion, I was really pleased with the conference and the way in whuch so many people really engaged with the important theme of improving student attainment.

The only question I have is this: since we are a teaching-led organisation, then why weren’t all of our academic staff in attendance? It was particularly interesting to see who went to the leadership event three days later instead.

For future years we’ll be working hard to make this event much harder to avoid – with topics that are important for everyone who teaches or who supports teaching, then this shouldn’t be difficult. Well also work more closely with our faculties to engage them earlier in the planning process.