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Where we have come from, where we are going

Last month we let you know that HESA will be using the existing student and AP student collection specifications for a further Academic Year, AY20/21. The new Data Futures system will not be going live until AY21/22 at the earliest.  We have been working over the last few months to move our Data Futures programme forward, and I wanted to share a few reflections on where we have been and where we’re going.

We appreciate that this year has been, and in many respects continues to be, a frustrating time for those staff in provider organisations charged with working with our Data Futures programme, securing time and resource from across their organisations in order to support the programme’s aims.  We have had to take some difficult decisions and are working to strengthen our approach as we move into the next phase, with improvements to governance, changes to the way we are delivering the underpinning software and increased technical and programme capacity.

The Data Futures programme remains a challenging sector-level transformation, which when I joined HESA nearly three years ago, was already underway and amongst other things was seeking to achieve the following:

  • To increase the utility of data held by HESA by improving its timeliness and improving the data model, thereby increasing its use by a broader range of customers.
  • To reduce the burden of data collection on providers (both via reducing the impact of other collectors collecting directly, and by creating a low-burden collection method).
  • To combine three distinct data collection specifications into one unified collection (ITT, AP Student, and Student).
  • To deliver data of high-quality three times per year to statutory customers.
  • To create a capability able to deliver data at additional points during the year if required in time.
  • To replace old technology at HESA and upgrade aging systems.
  • To enable HESA to respond more quickly to changes in the collection mandate, by reducing the need for software development activity as part of operating business as usual (BAU) collections.

HESA’s aim was and remains, to move all providers and data stakeholders from the old system to the new system at the same time, whilst maintaining data quality. 

Although the reasons for initially pausing earlier this year were in some respects quite specific, we are as you will know, taking the opportunity to listen and act on a broad range of feedback, to increase our confidence in delivery plans overall and to ensure the solution is workable for providers.  Since pausing the programme, providers and statutory customers have provided feedback on a range of issues, which we are acting on. 

Providers have highlighted the cost of process change inside their organisations, specifically the costs involved in ensuring things like Entry Qualifications data is held centrally and of suitable quality, ready for the HESA return by the end of November, and the need therefore to be clearer regarding what data is required and when. We have also received feedback on difficulties that you were having with the curriculum area of the data model, the details of this, along with other areas of the specification which are under consideration for change are detailed in the accompanying web pages.

HESA and its other stakeholders are also taking the opportunity to review and simplify two somewhat core design approaches, these are:

  • the extent to which the new data model attempts to unify business processes inside all providers through a common ‘observed’ data model, and;
  • continuous collection, in light of the challenges associated with capturing the level and complexity of data required on a continuous collection basis, and then compiling high-quality data deliveries that pertain to a complete reference period. Basic continuous collection began to work in our alpha and beta test phases; however it resulted in significant challenges in quality assurance, historic amendments, mergers/de-mergers and other areas which would have been difficult to address.

In both of these areas HESA is now seeking to simplify its approach, in other words we are heading towards a model of data collection that reflects the data use cases of customers, while listening to providers about how best to collect that data, and a collection method where the reference period (4-month block of data) is a fundamental part of the self-contained return. Those of you who are close to this will see some of this reflected in the work around how dates are handled in the specification and the way that some entities will be flattened.  More details on this are being published alongside this blog.

Views are of course mixed on these changes, some in the sector have expressed relief as the proposed model was forcing providers to work with a greater level of data capture that didn’t fit how their organisations actually worked – despite developing what we thought was a unified model, some providers were indeed still having to invest significant effort to either map data or create more data in their systems than they needed for operational use, to satisfy collection requirements.  

There are concerns that the loss of continuous collection capabilities and changes to the model limit the utility of the data held by HESA and increase work for providers, and therefore reduce the benefits case (and burden reduction). To this last point HESA continues to work with other data collectors in order to ensure that the three-delivery model has every chance of meeting their needs.  

Over the next few months we will consult on what these and other changes mean for the data model. While we want to move through this consultation at a pace, we do want this engagement to continue and to know if there are any areas of what is proposed that you think could be improved.

As designated data body for England we are dedicated to our overarching responsibility to reduce the burden of data collection on providers, and although some of our method and design may be changing, the benefits listed above remain at the centre of what we’re seeking to deliver. We are however taking decisions now, that we believe will simplify Data Futures so that we can all have more confidence in delivery plans, and increased confidence in the operability, performance and manageability of the system and of course, confidence in the data output 

Over the next few months, we will be working in parallel on the solution design and the data specification.  As part of this HESA will work through the Provider Forum which comprises representatives from sector groups including IHE, UCISA, SROC, HESPA and ARC,  and the Alpha Group which comprises around 12 providers which reflect the diversity of HE provision in the UK. We will also be working with programme funders and statutory customers to establish a method of delivering the programme that meets their needs and ensures confidence in plans overall.


Rob Phillpotts

Managing Director HESA Statutory