The scale of the world’s data is expanding by the minute. As technology becomes more powerful, so too do the tools with which academic strategists and policymakers record and report that data.
But while it was once hoped that a data-led industry would reduce the burden on higher education institutions and improve the quality of information, work and lifestyle, the tendency to rely too heavily on data has also been shown to have negative consequences.
“However you measure data processes, it is all growing in power – doubling in capacity every 18-24 months,” he explained. “It’s quite incredible – we have never known a revolution like this. And the problem with this technology is that there’s a tendency we can be a bit blasé about it. We lose a sense of perspective.”
Opening his speech, titled “The state of the data nation: skills to survive, succeed and meet the challenges ahead”, Mr Youell illustrated the pace at which changes were taking place through “Moore’s law” – the perception that the speed and power of the world’s computers is doubling every two years at half the cost.
By the same measurement, a car with a top speed of 75 miles per hour in 1965 would have a top speed of around 5 trillion today by the same rate of progress, he said. “That is where we are with the rate of technology these days – we are progressing at a speed that we simply cannot comprehend.”
To this end, Mr Youell, who has spent 30 years working with public and private national data agencies, questioned why so few institutions have what he called a “data strategy” for the future.
“It’s mad, isn’t it?” he said. “Because you have a financial strategy, you have an estates strategy, an HR strategy, an IT strategy...we have all this expectation on data but we don’t write down what our strategy is. We tend not to have enterprise-wide governance and quality assurance – we have silos in data.”
Audience members were asked to consider data through three different lenses – that of the higher education provider, that of the sector as a whole, and also from the perspective of those who measure and judge the sector.
Mr Youell said that universities faced pressure from all sides to become more business-like in their approach, which presented internal conflicts. Institutions were increasingly aspirational and had high expectations about the value and use they could draw from data, but the reporting of data would always be flawed, he said.
”Data is something by which we can explain the world and yet, when you think about how incredible higher education is, data is such a simplified tool. It is a crazy way to try to reflect what we do.”
There were also financial ramifications to consider when looking at the impact of data on university life, he added. “In recent years, universities are getting much better at [investing in] and developing IT than they were – in the past there were some very large sums being poured down the drain.”
Universities, as a sector, “are judged on data relentlessly”, he continued. Institutions were increasingly reliant on student surveys and subjecting applicants to “torrents of data”. Sector-wide assessments, such as the research excellence framework, perpetuated a tendency for policymakers to think of data as simple transaction.
“When the [REF] was introduced, universities were told to hand over their data – and because they had it already, it would be ‘no burden’ on them. That wasn’t floated as consultation, it was made as an announcement,” Mr Youell reflected, adding that the suggestion, at one point, for the REF to be based purely on metrics was “quite terrifying”.
With the introduction of the government’s Office for Students, universities in England are subject to more data-led regulation in this way. “That is how they view you, that is how they measure you, that is how they judge you,” he said.
But there have already been examples of how this data-led approach can be flawed. One institution, Barking and Dagenham College, had recently taken the OfS to court after its data submission failed to match up with the algorithmic understanding of what constitutes an HE provider. The college argued that the data didn’t tell the whole story, but it lost: the college is no longer on the register as a higher education institution.
Mr Youell cited a recent government pledge to put “an end to low-value degrees”. This was based on the notion that “if your courses and your graduates are not earning £25,000 after five years, then your courses should be closed down”. This, he warned, ignored “institutional autonomy and the value of a well-educated society”.
“It is all about the weaponisation of data and that is the challenge that we face,” he concluded.
In order to respond to the challenges faced, Mr Youell advised universities to work together as a sector to professionalise data management as a foundation on which other capabilities can be built.
“We desperately need more coherence between the professional communities that contribute to the sector, because they are too siloed,” he urged. “There is a huge opportunity to be had here.”
Universities must expand their capabilities to engage with data-driven policy and politicians, he said. “There is some very good stuff happening with policy and data, but data is still not central to policy.”
Ultimately, it is up to higher education institutions to support a positive culture around data. “The missile of data is being thrown at us and we are firing back with our bows and arrows,” he said. “The question is how to respond to that with valuable and strong leadership.”
First published in Times Higher Education