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Standardising and harmonising personal characteristics and equality data: consultation outcomes

In March 2021 we set out to find the views of the sector on updating the coding frames for personal characteristics and equality data items across multiple HESA collections. 

We also asked for input on the implications of collecting three new data items: marital status, pregnancy and maternity. HESA already collects data on other protected characteristics such as age, disability, religion or belief, and sexual orientation; however, we haven’t to date facilitated the collection and monitoring of marital status, pregnancy and maternity.

We’re now publishing the results of the consultation and recommendations. We’ve also updated the design of our consultation responses, so we hope you enjoy the experience of reading this one. 

I wanted to talk a bit about the reasons behind running the consultation, how it went and to say a big thank you to respondents who took the time and care to give us such detailed and useful responses.

Personally, this has been a really interesting project for me and a great opportunity to hear from people across the sector on such an important area of work. 

Why did we run this consultation?

2021 was Census year across the UK. Given the increased public interest in identity and expression of characteristics in data collection and analysis, the Government Statistical Service (GSS) decided to sponsor research into new harmonised standards for data collection in time for the 2021 Censuses. 

HESA is part of the UK’s ‘statistics family’ (a term used to describe organisations that publish official statistics and that adhere to the Code of Practice for Statistics). We want to ensure that our data remains comparable and consistent with other sources, which means users of data can perform coherent analyses across different datasets – in essence what data harmonisation is all about.

opportunity to align with other organisations and returns

We and our Statutory Customers had also been in discussions with AdvanceHE over their proposed updates to questions, responses and guidance around personal characteristics and equality fields. 

In light of these discussions, the 2021 Censuses and the GSS research, we decided that this was the right time to make updates to these data items in the HESA records.

A consultation with a difference for HESA

Looking across all the affected records together

We wanted to consider a view across our records, so we designed the consultation to consider the specifications for:

  • ITT (Initial Teacher Training)
  • Staff
  • Student and Student Alternative
  • The Data Futures specification (which will become the new Student collection specification from August 2022).

a complex, sensitive and wide-ranging consultation

This was especially beneficial because it gave us the chance to align all the coding frames. Across the different collections, we have been asking the same or very similar questions where we can, but that alignment has shifted over time. Looking at the collections together presented us with this opportunity to bring the questions back into line again.

Providing HESA’s background research to respondents

This research looked at each of the records, what data was collected in those records, what was collected elsewhere and outlined our recommendations for aligning the data collected. This wasn’t compulsory reading for respondents; however, it was gratifying to hear from some providers that you found it helpful, particularly the mapping between old and new proposed codes.

We have now updated the annex from the consultation with the outcomes. This is in the 2022-23 notification of changes pages for Staff, ITT and Data Futures, available in our reviews section.

Harmonisation and alignment

Though we couldn’t cover every possible cross-over with other organisations, we had a really good opportunity to align with other organisations and returns, with the ONS Census being one of the most significant, as well as with Advance HE’s guidance.

The pandemic

It almost goes without saying but is worth noting nevertheless: the consultation took place during the pandemic.

This was one of the longer consultations we have run here at HESA – our consultation portal was open for three months. The pandemic partly contributed to this (we weren’t able to hold any in-person events, for example, where we could have gathered a lot of points of view in a short amount of time), but we also recognised that this was a complex, sensitive and wide-ranging consultation and we wanted to give the sector ample time and opportunity to respond. 

It’s fair to say that the pandemic didn’t prevent you from giving very detailed and incredibly helpful responses. You raised lots of questions within your responses too, which have helped us to go away and come back with answers for as much as we could. 

It’s clear that significant effort was made to consult with colleagues; both staff and students alike. This undoubtedly added to the quality of responses, which in turn have contributed to a set of clear recommendations that we are looking forward to implementing.  

On behalf of us all at HESA, I’d like to say a big thank you.


Rachel Wilkes

Collections Development Manager