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Careers in HE: improving our understanding with longitudinal data

When we started asking users about their needs for data on higher education (HE) staff, many people mentioned a need for longitudinal data. Data users wanted to be able to track staff members between years of the record, following their careers as they move between contracts, between providers, and between HE and other sectors.

Longitudinal tracking has a number of possible benefits. It can give us information about career progression pathways, from the typical stages of an academic career, to how long staff members stay at each stage, to how often career progression is linked to a change in employer. In an age of growing interest in the relationship between HE and industry, longitudinal data can also provide us with information about movement into and out of the HE sector.

Longitudinal data can provide us with information about movement into and out of the HE sector

Some groups approach career tracking with a view towards advocating for improved working conditions and terms of employment, while others look towards promoting staff recruitment and retention. Tracking staff careers can also provide valuable information about equality of opportunity in the HE sector, as we see whether some staff are more likely to progress in their careers than others.

How does the Staff record enable longitudinal tracking?

The Staff record includes a number of fields that can supply us with data about staff careers. We need to identify individuals in the record if we want to track staff from one year of the record to another. While the Staff record does not include personal names, it does include several other variables that can help.

When a member of staff is first entered in the Staff record, they are allocated a unique code, or Staff identifier (STAFFID), which should remain the same throughout their career in higher education. When a member of staff moves to a new provider, the new institution can request that staff member’s STAFFID from their previous institution to ensure that the STAFFID follows the staff member into their new role.

Researchers can sign up for an Open Researcher and Contributor ID (ORCID), which will remain constant throughout their career. ORCID is currently an optional field in the Staff record, but it makes it possible to link a staff member’s HESA record with a record of their research outputs and institutional affiliations.

In addition, the Staff record contains variables which help us understand movement between roles. ‘Previous employment’ (PREVEMP) describes staff members’ employment before they started to work for their current employer. For staff members whose contract is ending, ‘Reason for end of contract’ (RESCON) allows for a number of possible reasons, including a change to a new contract, the end of a fixed-term contract, redundancy, and retirement. ‘Activity after leaving’ (ACTLEAVE) records the activity of staff after leaving the reporting provider.

What are the current limitations?

All our current tracking methods have limitations. PREVEMP, RESCON, and ACTLEAVE all suffer from high levels of missing data, suggesting that providers have difficulty obtaining information about staff members’ past employment or future plans. Although the three variables can still give us some useful information about patterns of staff movement, they cannot reliably help us understand individual career trajectories.

ORCID and STAFFID pose different problems. As mentioned above, ORCID is currently optional. Perhaps more importantly, the ORCID system is targeted at researchers, and not all HE staff will have an ORCID. While STAFFID can help track staff between roles at the same provider, it is less reliable when staff members travel between providers. The reasons for this may vary – career breaks may make tracking difficult, or providers may be hindered by concerns around privacy – but in many cases, staff members acquire new STAFFIDs when they move to new employers.

How can we improve longitudinal tracking?

We need to improve our ability to track staff between years of the HESA Staff record to meet user needs for data on career progression. If we can improve the coverage and reliability of the data collected, the variables currently included in the record could provide us with a wealth of information. However, if driving up the quality and coverage of STAFFID and ORCID – variables which make it possible to track individuals without collecting their names – proves unfeasible, we may need to collect additional identifying information, such as personal names.

We discuss further issues around longitudinal tracking and careers in HE in the evidence gathering consultation on the Staff record. To let us know about your uses for this data and your ideas for how it might be improved, please respond to the consultation, which closes on Friday 13 October.

Lucy Van Essen Fishman

Lucy Van Essen-Fishman

Lead Policy & Research Analyst