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Tariff aggregation methodologies: A beginners' guide

Data matters

Tariff. A word that conjures up, for many, a nightmarish image of complicated scoring algorithms and esoteric qualifications.[1] It’s not exactly great material for a blog post. HESA has, however, been involved in a great deal of tariff-related activity of late, and we felt it was time we shared some of that with you. But first, let’s back up a bit.

Tariff points are used across the length and breadth of HE for multiple purposes.

What is ‘tariff’?

For several years now UCAS have coordinated a process of assigning points to a range of qualifications commonly used for application to higher education. These points are collectively known as tariff, and allow a broad assessment of comparability to be made across what may be quite a range of different qualifications. These tariff points are used across the length and breadth of HE for multiple purposes, including by HESA.

The new tariff

Recently, UCAS have engaged with the sector, including HESA, to come up with a revised version of this system. It has been a wide-ranging, in-depth activity that has taken some time. What has been delivered is a much-reformed system that better assesses the comparability of qualifications against each other.

Unfortunately that means existing processes that use these points will now need to be reformed to account for these changes. HESA is not immune to this, and our engagement with UCAS and the sector in reforming tariff has been designed to mitigate and understand these changes as much as possible.

To HESA’s data users – be they statutory, academic, or even interested third parties – tariff is a way of comparing the abilities of a cohort in a universal way.

The tariff and HESA data

To HESA’s data users – be they statutory, academic, or even interested third parties – tariff is a way of comparing the abilities of a cohort in a universal way. For HESA, who have a mission to promote the use of the data we hold for the benefit of the sector, it’s important to ensure the methods that we use to assist in the use and understanding of the data we collect are both robust and well-defined.

We use a standardised tariff aggregation methodology as one such aid, because it’s very useful as a proxy for understanding different entry profiles to HE. ‘This student has an A-level!’ says an analyst. ‘How does that compare to the BTEC this other student has?’.[2] With tariff, analysis becomes a lot easier. Tariff cannot replace detailed knowledge of qualifications, but it can be a useful, if limited, substitute for it.

We’ve used this standardised tariff aggregation methodology for a number of years now – some may know it as the ‘XTARIFF’ process – and it’s fair to say that it’s a bit of a beast. It has to deal with a multitude of qualifications, avoiding counting duplicated subject content more than once, and programmatically account for oddities in coding frames; it’s sadly not a case of simply adding points together.

A new methodology for a new tariff

We’ve now published the new specification on our website as part of our commitment to keeping you up-to-date on our progress.

We’ve now updated the methodology for the new tariff, tentatively entitled ‘XTPOINTS’.[3] The two methodologies are expected to overlap as we transition from one to another. We’ve tried to make the new methodology as transparent and easy to understand as possible.

We’ve now published the new specification on our website as part of our commitment to keeping you up-to-date on our progress.

We’ve included an overview of how and when we expect to use it, and given you the lookup data to use should you wish to experiment with it for yourselves. There will be more work to do over the next couple of years to continue to incorporate new qualifications as they begin to be awarded, and are assigned identifiers and associated points. But a method for aggregating these together is a milestone in this process, and it seemed like a good point to share it with you.

We hope you find it useful.

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1 If, however, this is less ‘nightmarish’ and more your cup of tea, keep your eyes fixed on our vacancies page – you sound like someone we might need.

2 To which the answer is usually, with a slight feeling of dread, ‘Which BTEC?’.

3 Colleagues in the sector have pointed out to us that our abbreviated field names are often somewhat impenetrable. If you have an alternative suggestion that is catchy, captures the meaning of the field, and doesn’t have the word ‘new’ in it... please get in touch, and we’ll gratefully consider it!

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Mark Jones

Data Specification Manager