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Producing UK HE Finance data – new top lines, same bottom line

Users of HESA’s UK-wide HE Finance data should notice little difference when Open Data for 2018/19 is released on 31 March, but behind the scenes, there are some key changes to the data and the way the publication is produced.

Why was a new approach needed?

The new regulatory framework established following the passing of the Higher Education and Research Act means that in England, there is now a larger group of registered HE providers returning their audited financial statements. These providers have a variety of corporate forms and financial years. These factors mean that there are new features to UK HE finance data that must be taken into account: more providers, working on different timescales, and with financial statements that reflect their diverse operations. As a result, the way we report data on HE finances will also adapt.

What are we doing behind the scenes to make this happen?

New processes, developed in partnership with the OfS, enable us to collate the full range of HE provider data together in a single data structure. The data is structured in a way that will be familiar to users of HE finance data, but to get it to this stage requires evaluation of the differences between different approaches to producing published accounts, and some adaptation of terminology to ensure that we are inclusive of diversity.

With these changes, we need to ensure that the quality assurance processes are adapted to fit new data, while offering consistency with our previous approaches. Assurance can be given that no matter the size of the provider, their data has been put through a comparable quality assurance process. Users should be able to trust the UK HE Finance data to offer the same reliability over time as previous publications.

The result is a consistent, UK-wide HE Finance dataset. HESA then places the data in its Data Warehouse so that data analysis can begin, and Open Data outputs can be produced. The onward journey of the data also starts here, as it is required for other uses and users, such as the Office for National Statistics’ publication on gross domestic expenditure on research and development, and the Heidi Plus data explorer, managed on our behalf by Jisc, our data processor.

How will the data change?

One of the most interesting changes in the data, is to the concept of the reporting year. In the past, all HESA Finance data was collected on the basis of the HESA Reporting Year, running from the beginning of August to the end of the following July. This was the same as the Financial Years of almost all our reporting providers. However, there are now many different Financial Years in operation in the HE sector. So far, we are aware of ten different Financial Years, though not all of these will be represented in the first publication, which will cover all financial years ending within the 2018/19 HESA reporting year, where data is available.

Within their financial statements providers may also report data according to other accounting statements than HESA has previously worked with. The sector-owned statement of recommended accounting practice, or “FEHE SORP” for short, is now just one legitimate approach to financial reporting in an expanded sector. The differences between SORPs are not necessarily minor. In order to publish comparable data the  HESA publication follows the FEHE SORP and so in fact the differences you will see in the HESA outputs will be minor, and reporting across the whole UK sector will be as consistent as possible.

What comes next?

HESA’s Finance Open Data will be released in a similar format to previous publications, on Tuesday 31 March. The release will include data for most providers with a financial year ending during the 2018/19 HESA reporting year. However, it is unlikely to be the last Finance output this year. As data will now become available to us more frequently, we will look to make Financial available more regularly. We are already looking ahead to the 2019/20 publication, which will also include the first data for providers in England with a financial year end between 01 August and 31 December 2019. The next stage of the work involves deciding how often to publish data, and what interim publications that build towards a full year’s data should look like. We want to make sure the data is as accessible as ever, and the accompanying information is valuable to users. We look forward to your feedback and ideas for improvement when the data is released. There isn’t long to wait!

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Dan Cook

Dan Cook

Head of Policy & Development