Any infrastructure consists of complex networks of technologies, organizations and policies. This section details how HE data infrastructure upgrade in the UK is being accomplished by a cross-sector policy network of government departments, public agencies, consultancies, think tanks and software vendors, whose combined activities are building a technical system to deliver strategic political reforms. The redevelopment of the HE data infrastructure is, in fact, a practical enactment of the government’s reformatory objectives to create a marketized HE sector.
A policy genealogy of data futures
The Higher Education Statistics Agency is the main national body for statistical data collection and analysis across the HE sector in the UK. A charitable company operating under a statutory framework on behalf of the funding councils and UK government departments, HESA’s main remit is to support HE providers in fulfilling their data reporting requirements (https://www.hesa.ac.uk/about). HESA was formed in 1993 in response to a governmental working party on HE statistics and a subsequent act of parliament that gave it responsibility for building a system to collect HE data from 1994.
Funded by subscriptions from UK HE providers, HESA gathers information about all aspects of the UK HE landscape, including data on students, staff and graduates, finances and estates, academic departments and courses, and public engagement and commercial enterprises. One of HESA’s key roles is to maintain UK ‘performance indicators,’ which provide comparative data and benchmarks on the measurable performance of HE providers across several areas in order to contribute to greater public accountability by the sector. Its data and analysis also enable strategic planning, inform policymaking, advance academic and commercial research, understand social and economic trends, and, finally, support prospective students’ decision-making. HESA also, however, has a transformative role to upgrade the HE sector’s technological infrastructure, a task it is undertaking through its Data Futures innovation program (https://www.hesa.ac.uk/innovation/data-futures). HESA’s corporate strategy for 2016–2021 emphasizes its key objectives to upgrade the data infrastructure, improve sectoral data capability, and enhance insight through business intelligence, next-generation data analytics and visualization technologies (HESA, 2016). Launched in 2016, Data Futures is scheduled for live operationalization in 2020.
Data Futures has had a longer development period than its 2016 launch at first indicates. It was originally initiated in response to a 2011 white paper by the government Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) entitled Students at the Heart of the System (BIS, 2011) as part of a long-term government HE reform program later detailed in the 2016 white paper Success as a Knowledge Economy (BIS, 2016a). Together, these papers constitute a reformatory vision for UK HE as a whole that emphasizes student choice, a competitive marketplace of HE providers, increased performance measurement, improved outcomes, and future productivity for the economy. Two key reformatory recommendations of the white papers—that students in England should pay full fees for their degree courses, and the establishment of a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) to assess and rank university teaching quality—have already become the reality of HE in the UK. They are the subject of outspoken public debate on ‘market reform’ of the sector (Burnett, 2017; Ridley, 2017). HE reform was also a major part of the government’s 2017 Industrial Strategy, which announced investment ‘to test the use of AI and innovative education technology’ in university courses to develop ‘digital skills’ (HM Government, 2017: 41). Underpinning these policy developments, however, is a less visible project to build a hidden architecture for the collection, analysis and dissemination of data required by the reforms. The white papers proposed specific reforms to the HE data and information landscape in order to arrive at a new system that could meet the needs of a wider group of users, reduce duplication, and result in timelier and more relevant data.
At the same time, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills proposed a new governmental Office for Students (OfS). Described as ‘explicitly pro-competition and pro-student choice’ as well as a ‘consumer focused market regulator’ and ‘non-departmental public body’ operating ‘at arm’s length from Government’ (BIS, 2016a), the OfS would act as a public regulatory body to explicitly champion ‘the student, employer and taxpayer interest in ensuring value for their investment in higher education’:
Given the student is now the primary funder of higher education, there is a case for a new regulator that is capable of regulating the whole sector and operating on behalf of the student by supporting a competitive environment to promote choice, quality and value for money (BIS, 2016b).
With the legislative enactment of the Higher Education and Research Act (HERA) (http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2017/29/part/1/enacted), the OfS announced its formal remit in summer 2017 with the ministerial appointment as chair of Sir Michael Barber, with a schedule to become operational in early 2018. The WonkHE think tank for HE policy named Barber—formerly a government ‘delivery’ adviser and later chief education adviser to the global education business Pearson—the most powerful person in UK HE in 2017, with a ‘legendary fondness for metrics’ (Leach, 2017). In an earlier report for the Institute for Public Policy Research, Barber argued that universities would need to reinvent themselves for an increasingly competitive marketplace of HE providers, using technology to aid in this transformation (Selwyn, 2014). Under Barber’s leadership, a key responsibility of the OfS is assessing and rating the quality of, and the standards applied to, HE, and it has the duty to compile and make available higher education information along with regulatory powers to ‘de-register’ HE providers who fail to meet the designated standards. As commentators have pointed out, as a regulator for HE following the enactment of HERA, the OfS represents both the increasing marketization of HE and the growth of a sector of commercial HE providers:
The creation of a full-blown market for higher education with its own regulator—the Office for Students—heralded by the recent Higher Education and Research Act, is now nearly complete. The theory was that competition amongst the hundred or more existing universities, and a raft of new commercial providers, would hone the system to perfection. (Burnett, 2017).
In addition, according to the WonkHE think tank, it is widely anticipated by the sector that the OfS will replace periodic review based on annual data submission with a new method to use ‘live data’ and ‘real-time metrics’ to monitor institutions (Carrigan, 2017). Late in 2017, as part of the HERA consultative process, HESA was the sole submitting agency for the role of ‘Designated Data Body’ to work with the OfS to realize this ambition. It is in the context of the Industrial Strategy, the establishment of the OfS, the enactment of HERA, the designation of HESA as an official ‘Data Body,’ and the political priorities they put on creating a marketized HE sector that a new data infrastructure has been proposed and developed.
Data inventories and blueprint models
In order to deliver the new data system required by the reforms, the multinational consulting firm Deloitte was commissioned in 2012 by the Regulatory Partnership Group (a collaboration between the UK’s HE regulatory agencies) to ‘produce a proposal for a coherent set of arrangements for the collection, sharing and dissemination of data for the higher education data and information landscape’ (Deloitte, 2013). Subsequently, another global consultancy firm, KPMG, was appointed in 2014 to investigate and develop a blueprint for how student data should be collected by key stakeholders across the sector, as part of the Higher Education Data and Information Improvement Programme (HEDIIP) begun in 2013 (https://www.hediip.ac.uk/). HEDIIP was itself hosted by HESA—there is a traceable flow of staff and publications between HEDIIP and Data Futures—but retained its independence through oversight by a separate Programme Board, and involved a wide range of stakeholders from across the academic, government and industry sectors.
The outcomes of HEDIIP were reported to HESA by KPMG in 2015 (KPMG, 2015). HEDIIP had included an inventory of HE data collections which found a ‘shocking level of duplication,’ reported ‘a massive burden on the sector and silos of data that are not comparable,’ as well as ‘no robust information on standards of data management and governance in institutions but plenty of anecdote to suggest that while some institutions are getting to grips with the challenges of understanding and managing their data assets, in others high levels of duplication and low levels of oversight and control are not uncommon’ (Youell, 2015a). To tackle these problems, the KPMG HEDIIP report included specific blueprint proposals for a ‘New Data Landscape’, envisioned as ‘a data and information landscape for Higher Education in the UK that has effective governance and leadership, promotes data standards, rationalises data flows and maximises the value of technology and enables improved data capability’ (KPMG, 2015: 9). The report proposed the establishment of an independent national ‘Data Governance body’ for HE to be based at HESA, which would then take responsibility for maintaining data standards and compiling a standardized dataset across the sector.
A ‘theoretical target operating model’ for HE was also envisaged in the KPMG report. This ‘simplified vision of the future’ of HE data infrastructure proposed a single central ‘HE data warehouse,’ based on cloud storage, whereby all student data would flow continuously between HE providers, uniquely-identifiable students and service providers and enable real-time analytics to be utilized (KPMG, 2015: 54). Though theoretical, this operating model underpins the proposed HEDIIP blueprint later developed as the Data Futures model. In the blueprint, HESA acts as a single centralized data collector and governance body for HE data, with other data collectors then accessing information via a HESA-maintained data warehouse, mediated through analytics functionality provided by other third-party data services providers.
The HEDIIP report also detailed a number of political, economic, social, technological, legal and environmental drivers and opportunities associated with this model. Politically, it would provide more timely and relevant data for governments and funders to make HE policy decisions; economically, it would offer cost-saving benefits; socially, it would reduce inefficiencies, streamline student management processes and enhance the perception of the sector; technically, it could deliver the benefits of data analytics and business intelligence insights; legally, it would not require complex legislation; and environmentally, it would reduce waste, inefficiency and the need for paper and manual processing (KPMG, 2015: 69).
A new ‘data platform’ for HE
The Data Futures programme itself commenced in 2016, with a four-year timeline for stakeholder consultation, system design, piloting, and operational rollout in 2020. According to official documentation, the cost of Data Futures was originally covered by a joint grant of £7.4million from the UK HE funding bodies (https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201617/cmpublic/HigherEducationandResearch/memo/HERB30.pdf). Building on the blueprint and a detailed timetable of milestones provided by HEDIIP, Data Futures has the specified aim of transforming the HE data collection system that has remained largely unchanged since its inception in 1994, despite rapidly escalating demands for data from a range of organizations, such as the Office for National Statistics and incoming government bodies such as the Office for Students. A Data Futures PowerPoint presentation was made available on the HESA website in summer 2017 to promote greater sector awareness of the program:
Data, whether produced, processed or consumed plays an essential role in understanding and supporting the development of the UK’s HE sector. This data is used by potential students to make choices about their studies, and by government bodies to develop and review policies. HE providers need data to benchmark their operations, and to improve their efficiency and effectiveness, and the funding bodies use it to allocate public money. Data is also required for regulatory purposes, and in some cases is collected as a statutory requirement. (HESA, 2017)
In order to meet these needs, one of the main outputs of Data Futures is a planned ‘Data Platform’ to act as a hub for data collection and streamline demands on individual Higher Education institutions by making HESA the main source for all sectoral data.
A technical specification for potential suppliers to build the platform was released by HESA in 2016 (https://www.hesa.ac.uk/files/Data-futures/Data-Futures_Overview-for-PQQ.pdf). The specification reveals the platform would include a vast number of interconnected technical components, including three ‘user interfaces’: a data collection portal, an analytics portal and a governance portal. Underlying these interface portals would be a range of ‘services,’ all underpinned by ‘human and machine readable specifications,’ a ‘logical model’ and ‘physical data model,’ a ‘unique student identifier lookup service,’ and a ‘reporting engine.’ The data platform would also include cloud storage, encryption, secure file transfer services, metadata, code, rules, data files, metrics, and specifications in terms of quality, reports, and data delivery, and more.
A key aspect of the proposed data platform is the involvement of partners from both the public and private sectors. The data collection elements of Data Futures have been outsourced for delivery by Civica, a global technology company which ‘provides a wide range of software, digital solutions and technology-based outsourcing’ for ‘organisations to improve and automate the provision of efficient, high quality services, and to transform the way they work in response to a rapidly changing and increasingly digitalised environment’ (https://www.civica.com/en-GB/what-we-do/). In addition to work in the commercial and financial sectors, Civica serves government and national security, health care, housing, local government, public safety and education sectors. Appointed by HESA in 2017, Civica Digital was contracted to work with the Data Futures team at HESA to develop a user-centred interface for HE providers to find more insights from their data in areas including student recruitment, retention and performance (Say, 2017).
In the earlier prototype stage of Data Futures, guided by the HEDIIP blueprint, much of the analysis being undertaken to deliver the new data landscape was enacted through a collaboration formed in 2015 between HESA and Jisc (Joint Information Services Committee) known as Analytics Labs. Jisc itself acts as the ‘UK higher, further education and skills sectors’ not-for-profit organisation for digital services and solutions,’ and operates ‘shared digital infrastructure and services’ in order to ‘deliver considerable collective digital advantage, financial savings and efficiencies for UK universities, colleges and learning providers’ (https://www.jisc.ac.uk/about/who-we-are-and-what-we-do). The HESA/Jisc Analytics Lab collaboration is in many respects a prototype of the kind of data practices envisaged by Data Futures, emphasizing efficient data collection, removal of duplication, and capacity-building in cutting edge data analytics and visualization techniques.
Embedding ‘big data’ in HE
Significantly, Data Futures has been promoted by HESA’s chief executive, Paul Clark, as a strategic program to embed ‘big data’ in UK Higher Education (Clark, 2015). Clark has described how the environment in which HE institutions operate is becoming increasingly data-intensive and data hungry, with policymakers, students and potential investors all seeking data and information for their own purposes and needs. At the same time as these ‘trends are being driven by developments in higher education policy,’ adds Clark, ‘changes in the worlds of data, digital service delivery, and technology’ are taking place as big data technologies and practices are embedded across sectors and industries. Late in 2017 HESA organized the Data Matters conference to disseminate Data Futures updates to HE data practitioners, and as a forum for presentations and discussion around issues of big data, learning analytics, personalization services, data visualization, as well as data protection, privacy and data quality assurance (Guy, 2017). The Data Futures platform, then, is envisaged as a network with gateways and sockets for plugging-in other emerging technical innovations, which might enable it to become an infrastructure for live data analytics and real-time metrics. Consequently, claims Clark (2016):
In ten years’ time, it’s possible to envisage a digital HE sector, with data-driven universities operating within a smart, connected environment. In this vision, universities would routinely use data drawn from many sources and devices to design and deliver their services, allocate resources, and monitor their performance. Policy-makers would similarly pool data from across government and the public sector to design interventions, monitor progress, and gain a far better and more granular understanding of how policy should be designed and delivered in order to achieve their aims. And users of the system would be able to access critical real-time data and information on their own progress, the resources available to them, and what they can do to maximise their chances of success.
These comments indicate how Data Futures is intended as a strategic intervention to make UK HE big data-ready, with standards and systems in place to allow institutional self-monitoring, to assist policymaking and intervention design, and to enable users to access real-time information on progress and available resources. The corporate strategy published by HESA in 2016 reinforces the ‘transformative change’ being wrought by big data in relation to higher education (HESA, 2016: 3). In other words, Data Futures is establishing the necessary infrastructure to support the application of learning analytics, adaptive learning platforms, and other forms of big data, AI and machine learning within digital courses, as current governmental interests in these technologies attest (HM Government, 2017; Policy Connect, 2016; Westminster Higher Education Forum, 2017).
At the core of this vision is a transformed view of HESA too, as an integral data warehouse for the collection, processing and dissemination of HE statistics, and potentially for new sources of big data. Through Data Futures and the new architecture for HE data it is building with its partners, HESA has been positioned as a new ‘centre of calculation’ (Latour, 1986) in Higher Education, a centralized data collector which is able to gather information from institutions distributed around the UK, transport those data to its servers and data processing centres, and then analyse, visualize and disseminate the data in order to shape knowledge and decision-making practices. HESA has ultimately been positioned to construct the hidden architecture of data collection necessary to the enactment of the 2017 Higher Education and Research Act.
In sum, as an infrastructure-building project, Data Futures is an accomplishment of a complex web of people and organizations, technologies, and social, political, legal and economic drivers. It operationalizes political, regulatory and economic demands on the HE sector, by standardizing and quantifying student data as a means toward ensuring that students’, investors’, and taxpayers’ interests are adequately served. Data Futures is a practical enactment of politically-motivated market reforms to UK HE that centre on choice, competition, performance metrics, efficiency and accountability. As such Data Futures needs to be understood infrastructurally as a dynamic sociotechnical assemblage of people, organizations, policies, technologies and legalities, all operating toward the realization of a utopian vision of a ‘smart, connected,’ HE sector based on massive volumes of student data and analysis. Beneath the utopian vision, however, is the more politicized project of market reform. Holding it together is the central issue of standardization.