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Student record quality report

1. Introduction

Principle 4 of the Code of Practice for Official Statistics states that statistical methods should be consistent with scientific principles and internationally recognised best practices, and be fully documented. Quality should be monitored and assured taking account of internationally agreed practices.

Read the full Code of Practice

Each Official and National Statistics output prepared by HESA contains key quality information in respect of the specific content of the output. This information is provided in the definitions, notes to tables or notes to editors.

In addition, HESA publishes summary quality reports for each of the main sources of data used to compile Official and National Statistics, to provide key qualitative information on the various dimensions of quality and the methods used to produce outputs.

Official and National Statistics products which utilise information from the HESA Student Record include the two Statistical First Releases ‘Higher education enrolments and qualifications obtained at higher education providers in the United Kingdom' and ‘Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education in the United Kingdom'. Other products include the reference volumes ‘Higher Education Statistics for the UK', ‘Students in Higher Education' and ‘Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education’.

2. Summary of quality

2.1 Relevance

The degree to which the statistical product meets user needs for both coverage and content.

The HESA Student Record is a census-based individualised data collection covering students at publicly-funded higher education providers plus the University of Buckingham, which is privately-funded. Coverage extends to all students who are undertaking a course or programme which leads to the award of a qualification or institutional credit. The Record excludes students studying overseas for the entire duration of their course even when they are formally registered at a UK-based HE provider. Students studying overseas by distance learning are similarly excluded unless they are funded by a UK HE funding body. The HE providers at which each student is registered are responsible for submitting the data about that student to HESA, drawing on information held within their internal administrative systems.

Information from the HESA Student Record is used by a wide variety of types of users for a range of purposes. UK HE Funding Bodies and government education departments and Devolved Administrations (‘statutory users') use the information to support the allocation of state funding and the formulation and monitoring of higher education policy. It is used by HE providers for strategic organisational planning and benchmarking performance and characteristics against other HE providers. Prospective students and their advisors use the information to inform their choices of provider and course, often through intermediary publications such as university guides and league tables. The media use information to support reports and articles on UK higher education. Private companies use it for monitoring and targeting their graduate recruitment efforts. Academic researchers investigating many different aspects of higher education draw upon the information extensively. International users studying the UK HE system or monitoring the success of students from their country studying in the UK also utilise the information.

HESA ensures that the Student Record and products derived from it remain relevant to users in a number of ways. A ‘Statutory Customers Technical Group' exists to ensure that the requirements of statutory users are met. Users within HE providers are represented on our ‘National User Group' that meets regularly. All HESA records undergo a major review cycle every few years that brings together representatives from the key user communities to ensure that the information collected remains appropriate for their needs. Other user groups exist in relation to specific HESA information products and surveys of users are undertaken periodically. Feedback received through all of these channels and others help to shape the information collected and the content of products derived from the information. In this way the needs of user communities are continuously monitored and, where appropriate and practicable, acted upon.

As a multi-purpose collection, data from the HESA Student Record must be aggregated and refined in order to be used to generate meaningful statistics. This includes the derivation of ‘populations' of students and staff based on the application of restriction clauses to exclude any records which are inappropriate to a particular output. An example of this would be in statistics on qualifications obtained - clearly only those students who have been awarded a qualification in any given reporting year should be included in such statistics. Details of all population definitions and aggregation techniques used are clearly explained within the definitions section of each HESA output.

2.2 Accuracy

The closeness between an estimated result and the (unknown) true value.

As a census rather than a survey, no estimates are produced from the HESA Student Record and issues of sampling error are not relevant. Instead characteristics of the population in question (students) can be measured directly and comprehensively.

For census collections, the extent of missing records or data items is of more relevance to accuracy. Missing records are not considered to impact materially on the HESA Student Record. The Student Record is collected annually using a ‘muster' approach, so that no individual record may disappear from one year to the next without reaching an expected ‘end-state' (such as leaving the HE provider or gaining the intended qualification) or an explanation from the provider as to why the record is missing. In addition, counts of students from the HESA Student Record are compared annually with returns made to funding bodies in respect of state funding allocations, and any discrepancies are investigated. The HESA Student Record returns are also subject to audit processes from time to time. If any case arises where HESA becomes aware that records are missing for any given HE provider, this is noted within the Notes to tables or Notes to Editors for the given product.

In respect of missing data items, the majority of data items are collected for all students but some are restricted to students of a particular type or geographical location. An example of this is that data on ethnicity of students is only collected for students of UK domicile. In such cases this is clearly explained in the definitions provided with each product. Some data items may include categories for ‘unknown' or ‘information refused' such as ethnicity. In such cases the levels of unknown values are shown in statistical tables and caveats may be included which explain that the statistics may not be representative of the population. The level of unknown entries within data items is routinely monitored during the data collection process. Any HE provider recording abnormally high levels of unknown values in key data items are strongly encouraged to reduce this level over time.

2.3 Timeliness and punctuality

Timeliness refers to the lapse of time between publication and the period to which the data refer. Punctuality refers to the time lag between the actual and planned dates of publication.

The first release of information from the HESA Student Record for any given academic year occurs in early January following the end of that academic year. For example, data for the 2009/10 academic year was first published on 13 January 2011. First release occurs within the Statistical First Release (SFR) entitled ‘Higher education student enrolments and qualifications obtained at higher education providers in the United Kingdom'. This is a National Statistics publication and is freely available from the HESA website and the National Statistics Publication Hub. A further more detailed publication drawing on these data is then published in late February entitled ‘Students in Higher Education'. This is an Official Statistics publication and is available to order online for a fee from the HESA website. The introduction to this publication, which provides data summaries and commentary is available to download free of charge from the HESA site. Further publications which include data from the Student Record include the National Statistics publication ‘Higher Education Statistics for the United Kingdom'.

The reason for the time delay between the end of the academic year and first publication of statistics in relation to that year is the time required to collect, process and quality-assure the data and to prepare the statistical release itself. The HESA Student Record collection is undertaken annually as a retrospective collection in the autumn following the academic year to which it relates. For example the 2009/10 collection process opened in August 2010 with a return date of 15 September and a data quality assurance and final sign-off period running until 29 October. Final processing of data and delivery to statutory users covered the period to 1 December 2010. At this point preparation of the January SFR commenced culminating in publication on 13 January 2011.

All of HESA's National Statistics publication dates are pre-announced on the HESA website and the National Statistics Publication Hub Release Calendar. In the unlikely event of a change to a pre-announced release date, attention will be drawn to this through the NS Hub Release Calendar and the HESA website together with a full explanation of the reason for the change.

In addition, since 2009 release dates for all of HESA's remaining outputs (which are predominantly Official Statistics) have been pre-announced via the HESA website with month of release shown twelve months in advance and precise dates being announced four weeks prior to release. HESA has met all such pre-announced release dates.

2.4 Accessibility and clarity

Accessibility is the ease with which users are able to access the data, also reflecting the format(s) in which the data are available and the availability of supporting information. Clarity refers to the quality and sufficiency of the metadata, illustrations and accompanying advice.

Editions of the Statistical First Release ‘Higher education student enrolments and qualifications obtained at higher education institutions in the United Kingdom'can be accessed free of charge from the HESA website at https://www.hesa.ac.uk/news. Each of the data tables included within each SFR are provided in Microsoft Excel format to encourage analysis and re-use. 

‘Students in Higher Education' is available for purchase and online download from the HESA website.

This also contains data tables in Microsoft Excel format. The introduction to this product, which contains an overview of the statistics alongside commentary on key points and charts is available for download free of charge (see ‘contents' link from above web-page). Similarly a selection of the main tables included within the product are also available free of charge.

‘Higher Education Statistics for the United Kingdom' is available for purchase and online download from the HESA website.

Further extracts of data from the HESA Student Record are available on request from the HESA Bespoke Data Service (email or tel 01242 211133).

Each HESA publication and all data supplied through the Bespoke Data Service is accompanied by full definitions and supporting information on specific aspects of quality. Further advice on any aspect of HESA data is available on request from the above team atHESA.

2.5 Comparability

The degree to which data can be compared over time and domain.

The HESA Student Record specification is subject to a major review process every few years and minor changes may occur on a more frequent cycle. Changes are driven by the requirements of statutory users, higher education providers and other key stakeholders. Requirements in relation to the publication of Official and National Statistics are fed into that review process. However as an administrative collection with primary purposes which are not related to the publication of Official and National Statistics, these requirements are of secondary importance to those of the statutory users in relation to state funding of higher education and formulation of HE policy. As such changes to the data collection arrangements which have implications for Official and National Statistics publications do occur from time to time. HESA's statistical planning process is designed to assess the impact of any changes in data collection on statistical outputs and to determine methods for minimising impact. In very many cases changes operate at a sufficiently low level within the microdata so as to permit simple adjustments of underlying aggregations which do not materially disturb the higher level statistics which are derived from the data. Where changes generate greater impact, methods such as re-basing historic data may be used to provide consistent time-series within statistical outputs. In such cases this is made clear to users within the accompanying supporting information. Where changes are so serious as to render re-basing impossible, such as a move to an incompatible classification system for example, any discontinuities in the data are made clear within statistical outputs. For examples of the above treatment of changes in the data collected please see Notes to Editors in the January 2011 SFR.

It is HESA policy to utilise national or international data standards wherever relevant and practicable to maximise comparability over domain.  There are many examples of alignments with international standards (e.g. ISO) and national standards (e.g. National Statistics or UK Population Census) within the HESA Student Record. HESA only deviates from existing data standards if such standards are seen to be inappropriate or inadequate for UK higher education uses.

2.6 Coherence

The degree to which data that are derived from different sources or methods, but which refer to the same phenomenon, are similar.

The HESA Student Record is the only comprehensive source of UK-wide statistics on HE students and their study choices. There are, however, other sources of student information that are more limited in coverage, either by type of student or by geographical region of the UK. Probably the most notable of these are statistics compiled and published by UCAS using information supplied by students and HE providers as part of the applications process. Although UK-wide, the UCAS admissions process primarily focuses on students applying to full-time first degree and some sub-degree courses such as HND (though UCAS process limited numbers of applications to other types of courses). This presents one of the major differences between UCAS and HESA statistics since HESA statistics are not limited to a subset of HE courses offered. There are also other key differences. UCAS statistics are based on numbers of applications and acceptances on courses whereas HESA statistics are records of students who actually enrolled on courses. In some cases accepted applicants never actually enrol on the course on which they have been accepted. There are also cases in which students apply directly to HE providers without utilising the UCAS admissions process and therefore never appear in published UCAS statistics. In addition to differences in coverage there are also methodological differences used by UCAS and HESA in presenting statistics on student numbers. An example of this is the recording of subjects studied by students who are undertaking subject combination courses - UCAS allocate students to a single major subject or a combination category whereas HESA divides student numbers across the combination subjects. These definitional differences between HESA and UCAS data must be noted when comparing statistics derived from these sources, although users will note that the overall trends over time in UCAS statistics on entry to higher education are similar to those in HESA statistics for full-time undergraduate entrants.

In England, student numbers can also be derived from the annual Higher Education Funding Council for England ‘HESES' return (Higher Education Students Early Statistics). This differs in a number of ways from published HESA statistics. Coverage extends only to England-based HE providers. In addition, figures collected within this census are based on an aggregate count of students whereas the HESA Student Record collects individualised data. HESES figures are based on retrospective counts of students from 1 August to 1 December in each academic year together with a forecast of student numbers from 2 December to 31 July with an allowance made for numbers of students who are forecast to leave before completing the academic year. HESA figures are entirely based on a retrospective count with no forecasting or estimation required. In other respects the coverage of the two census collections is intentionally similar and indeed figures from the two collections undergo a formal reconciliation process which is used as a mechanism to verify the data provided by HE providers.

The Department for Education and the Devolved Administrations produce statistical bulletins on Higher Education. These often draw upon data from the HESA Student Record and use common definitions. These figures should therefore normally be comparable to statistics published by HESA.

3. Summary of methods used to compile the output

Collection of the HESA Student Record

Data are supplied by HE providers to HESA via a secure web-based transfer system created and maintained by HESA. The data supplied are subject to an extensive quality assurance process. This first stage of this includes a suite of validation checks, which ensure that the data collected meet specification, dates fall within expected ranges and the information provided within fields of data is consistent. Failures at this stage may cause a data return to be rejected, requiring a re-submission from the provider once corrected. The second stage of quality assurance comprises a verification process whereby frequency counts and cross tabulations are produced automatically from the data submission of each provider and these are fed back to the providers. A team of quality assurance analysts at HESA also scrutinise this material. Year on year comparisons provide a summary of changes and the level of change in any particular area is examined closely if it falls outside of an expected range. Any issues arising from this stage of quality assurance are logged within an online system to which the submitting providers have access. Providers must respond to each issue to either confirm that anomalies are genuine or correct the data and re-submit. The final stage of the quality assurance process is a sign-off by the head of each provider confirming that data meet required quality standards and are fit for onward use.

Contracts in place between HESA and Statutory users require that the data be of sufficient quality for Statutory users' funding and policy purposes and sanctions may be applied against HESA and HEIs should these quality standards not be met. The quality standards set by Statutory users are deemed more than adequate for the purposes of production of Official Statistics.

Production of statistics from the Record

Once the data collection has been completed, quality assured and signed-off the resulting data sets are made available to statistical analysts at HESA for preparation of relevant publications and responding to ad-hoc requests for information. The production process for Official and National Statistics occurs within a project structure with appropriate governance mechanismsin place. Preparation of the three HESA National Statistics releases is undertaken in collaboration with statisticians at the Department for Education and the Devolved Administrations. The process includes extensive quality assurance procedures at key stages. These include peer review of data specifications for releases, peer review of programming code generated to extract data from the HESA databases, parallel production of data tables using different construction methods with cross-verification, further credibility checking of data tables, detailed manual checking of figures cited in statistical commentary together with checking of charts and extensive proof reading of commentary. Each key stage of the production process requires senior staff sign-off and full issue-tracking and document version control is utilised.

Information on the methods used to generate specific elements of data in published releases can be found within the Definitions supplied with each release.