The State of the Data Nation

  By Andy Youell   - Wednesday 18 December 2019

I recently delivered the knowledge partner session for Times Higher Education and ESS at THE Live. This is a summary of that speech where I reflect on the state of the data nation.

The rapid growth in data processing technology has brought about a global revolution, the like of which has never been seen before. We refer to Moore’s Law as a shorthand for this explosion in the power of technology but the use of impenetrable language - words like ‘terabytes’ and ‘petaflops’ - can mask the real extent of the rate at which data processing power has increased. We struggle to understand just how powerful this technology now is.

Data has become ubiquitous, touching almost every aspect of our lives and re-writing some of the most fundamental truths. But data itself can be a clumsy and distorted representation of reality. Higher education is at the leading edge of our understanding of the world and every year millions of students travel on their own wonderous and life-changing journey through this knowledge. Data struggles to describe the richness of higher education.

To consider the current state of data in the higher education sector I would like to look from three different perspectives:

1. HE providers

For many years I have worked closely with HE providers and they are wonderfully complex, dynamic and, occasionally, baffling organisations. There are many views on what a university is from a twenty-first century business to a community of scholars. The ever-increasing aspirations for data can manifest itself in many ways across this range of perspectives.

However, while there is no shortage of aspiration for the value we can drive from data, institutions’ are frequently hampered by a lack of coherent, organisation-wide, data management and governance capability. Without these foundations in place, the realisation of genuinely transformative services and insights will always be frustrated. It is very rare to come across an institution that has effective strategic leadership around data issues and a culture to support this. More often than not, institutions are struggling to stabilise siloed data operations and are having to divert scarce resources to an endless stream of remedial activities. 

2. Sector-level capabilities

The HE data landscape remains a bewildering mass of data flows with very little sense of coherence and efficiency. Attempts to standardise and rationalise this landscape have struggled against the sheer scale and complexity of the challenges. The sector’s central data processing organisation – HESA – is attempting to build a data platform that will meet the rapidly evolving demands of data users but delays to the Data Futures programme is resulting in a loss of confidence and momentum for this work at institutions.

The sector has a large number of professional communities which pool ideas and to promote information sharing and the development of good practice. Many of these communities are actively promoting data skills and capabilities but there remains a strong sense that these initiatives reflect the mentality of the data silos that are so prominent in many institutions.

3. Those who measure and judge

There are many who assess institutions through data and the sector continues to struggle with a data environment in which the same metrics can be interpreted by different stakeholders in different ways. The world of league tables and rankings continues to grow both in the UK and globally and while many in the sector bemoan the use of data in this way, a high ranking in a league table rarely fails to get a mention on an institution’s web site.

In England the implications of an explicitly data-driven regulatory framework continue to become apparent though there is a feeling that more shocks are yet to emerge for some institutions and that discussions around data will become increasingly heated in this area. Many in the policy world appear to believe that data is a magic bullet to understand, regulate and change behaviours and this view of data is clearly in the ascendency.

Higher education is operating in a political environment in which data is increasingly being used to pursue and support ideological narratives. This weaponization of data is not an entirely new phenomenon but it seems to be more prevalent and increasingly brutal. The assertion from Damian Hinds – when Secretary of State for Education – that courses should be closed down if graduates do not earn more than £25,000 five years after graduating was a questionable interpretation of the LEO data to support an idea which itself was a direct threat to institutional autonomy.

Responding to the challenges

Given the threats and opportunities we currently face I think there are three key strategies for the sector to pursue:

  • First is the issue of data capabilities. This is an issue for institutions and the people who are employed by them. Faced with ever increasing levels of technology and the ever-growing expectations of data, we need to professionalise the foundational areas of data management and governance in order to deliver the efficiency and value that data promises. This will require leadership at a senior level and a culture that shows a level of respect for data which is currently uncommon in the sector.
  • Second, and to support this, the professional communities that exist across the sector have an opportunity to create a more coherent approach to developing the skills and knowledge of their members. We often struggle with data because, unlike many other strategic assets, it does not sit neatly in one professional domain. We therefore need an approach to data that brings a broad range of perspectives together.
  • My final recommendation is for those who engage with policy and politics. Faced with a debate that is increasingly data-driven we need to enhance our policy skillset to put data at the centre rather than seeing it as a supporting adjunct. The shift from data-driven policy to data-driven politics places an even greater emphasis on the need to engage with the data the lies behind the numbers.   

Data is changing the world and I would not bet against this ending any time soon.

Andy Youell has spent over 30 years working with data the systems and people that process it. Formerly Director of Data Policy and Governance at the Higher Education Statistics Agency, and member of the DfE Information Standards Board, he now works with further and higher education providers as a strategic data advisor. 

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