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Frequently asked questions

What is the background to the Data Futures programme?

The UK's collection and use of higher education (HE) data is valued by the sector and respected around the world. We are valued due to our close work with HE providers since we began collecting data in 1993. However, the context in which we operate is rapidly becoming more complex and the system used to collect data is no longer fit for purpose. The Data Futures programme allows us to respond to these changes and develop a data collection system which is fit for the times and future proofed.

How will Data Futures reduce the burden of data collection in the sector?

One of the primary aims of the Data Futures programme is to reduce the burden of data collection in the HE sector, particularly on providers. It will seek to do this in three ways:

  1. The process of submitting data will be made significantly faster and more efficient. This will be achieved through introducing a more advanced technology platform and faster processing capabilities. We will also be moving our core data collection systems and storage to the Cloud, and introducing a new, automated approach to data quality assurance.
  2. The overall number of data collections required throughout the year from different parties will be reduced. While the move to in-year data collection will increase the number of student data returns, these will be used for a wider range of purposes and will replace some of the existing collections. The new system will be designed according to the principle of ‘collect once, use multiple times’.
  3. We will review the number of data fields collected in the core student collection, with a view to assessing the options for reducing its complexity and making sure that only the data items which are most needed are collected.

What is the timescale for the Data Future programme?

We are currently aiming to carry out an initial pilot in 2017/18, with a full roll-out of the new system across the sector in 2019/20. We have pushed the roll-out back a year (it was originally due for 2018/19). This is to allow us more time for engagement, testing and extensive piloting.

How will the decision on what points during the year to collect data be arrived at?

We aim to arrive at an agreed number of data collection points, at agreed times throughout the year. We will work with higher education providers and the organisations requiring data to determine the number and timing of these collection points.

We would not necessarily collect all current fields in the student record at multiple points in the year. We will also be negotiating the specification of the in-year dataset, with the aim of maximising the usefulness of the data collected while minimising the burden on providers.

The project will set out detailed proposals on the process and mechanism which will be used to carry out this negotiation. This will include negotiation of the structure for the first year of operation of the new system, as well as mechanisms for ongoing annual review.

How will software suppliers be engaged during the programme?

Suppliers of systems – be they in-house staff or commercial suppliers – are critical to the successful delivery of a new approach to data collection. We will be working with suppliers during the specification, design and piloting of the programme.

Will the in-year data collection be subject to the same quality assurance processes as the current student collection?

We currently operate a sophisticated, multi-layered approach to data quality assurance that has evolved over many years. This has ensured our data is recognised as being consistently high quality.

The Data Futures programme provides an opportunity for us to develop more efficient and effective approaches to data quality that are proportionate and fit for purpose.

How will the data collected during the year be used? Will it be used to compile in-year league tables, for example?

The Data Futures programme will allow more timely information to be published about the HE sector; this could include in-year publication of data by HE provider and the provision of data to providers through the Heidi Plus service to support improved benchmarking and sector analysis. In approaching this, we will need to take into account issues such as competition law.

In-year data will also be available to government, funding and regulatory bodies to support more effective policy development and monitoring, as well as funding and regulatory activities. Such data may also be used by a wide range of other organisations within and beyond the HE sector to understand emerging trends and undertake more up-to-date analysis.

By its very nature, in-year data will be incomplete. Many providers have intakes at multiple points in the year and some types of data are not available or meaningful until the end of the reporting year. Decisions around the release of any data – be it for a league table or for any other purpose – will need to take account of what uses the data can and cannot support.

What has happened since the Data Futures consultation closed?

Since the consultation closed in December 2015, we have evaluated responses and engaged in more detailed planning and scoping. This has included potential options for: high level 'to be' data collection, dissemination and governance processes; best-fit conceptual technical and application architecture; and the most practical delivery approach and timescales.

We have been testing some emerging models and ideas with a limited number of stakeholders, including three HE providers (The Open University, the University of Birmingham, the Royal Academy of Dance) and data collectors (HEFCE, NCTL, GMC). The providers were selected from those who responded to our consultation on the basis of size and type of organisation, to ensure we captured views from a range of perspectives.

We have also begun the procurement process for a Prime Contractor to support the delivery of this programme of change.