Mapping the data infrastructure of market reform in higher education

Ben Williamson

Cables_Thomas Williams

A new regulator for Higher Education in England came into legal existence on 1st January 2018. Announced as part of the 2017 Higher Education and Research Act (HERA), the Office for Students was controversial before even formally opening for business. The appointment to its board of Toby Young, the free schools champion and journalist, appalled critics who vocally called for his sacking over previous misogynistic comments in the press and on social media. Despite Conservative Party ministers including Jo Johnson, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove defending his selection, Young resigned within 10 days.

The Toby Young storm, however, distracted attention from one of the most significant aspects of the HE reforms the Office for Students will preside over. That is the escalation and acceleration in the collection, analysis and use of student data, and the building of a new HE data infrastructure to enact that task. Under the Office for Students, student data is to become a significant source for regulating the HE sector, as universities are put under increasing pressures of market reform, metrics and competition by HERA.

As with all data infrastructure, mapping the HE data infrastructure is a complex task. In this initial attempt to document it (part of a longer published paper), I am following Rob Kitchin’s call for case studies that trace out the ‘sociotechnical arrangements’ of people, organizations, policies, discourses and technologies involved in the development, evolution, influence, dead-ends and failures of data infrastructures. It is necessarily a very partial account of a much larger project to follow the development, rollout and upkeep of a new data infrastructure in UK HE, and to chart how big data, learning analytics and adaptive learning technologies are being positioned as part of this program to deliver a reformed ‘smart’ sector for the future.

Metrics, markets and HE reform
As will be familiar to many working within UK HE, the Higher Education and Research Act (HERA) came into effect in 2017. It is the result of governmental reforms to the sector that have been underway since the beginning of the decade, as detailed in government papers produced by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS)—notably 2011’s Students at the Heart of the System and 2016’s Success as a Knowledge Economy. These reforms, as others have documented and debated, have unleashed a ‘metric tide’ of performance measurement across the sector in an effort to create a marketized system of mass higher education.

The creation of the Office for Students (OfS) as a new regulator for HE in England has now consolidated the metricization and marketization of the sector as demanded by HERA. Described by BIS as a ‘non-departmental public body’ operating ‘at arm’s length from Government,’ the OfS is intended as an ‘explicitly pro-competition and pro-student choice’ organization, as well as a ‘consumer focused market regulator’ much like Ofcom in the media sector and Ofwat in water services. Its chair is Sir Michael Barber, formerly the ‘deliverology’ champion under Tony Blair’s government, a partner at management consultancy McKinsey, and more recently the chief education adviser at the global education business Pearson. At Pearson Barber oversaw its attempted transformation into a ‘digital-first’ company focused on digital data analytics and adaptive learning technologies for both the schools and universities sectors.

Barber was also the co-author of a 2013 report on the future of HE in the UK with the IPPR think tank, which argued:

With a massive diversification in the range of providers, methods and technologies delivering tertiary education worldwide, the assumptions underlying the traditional relationship between universities, students and local and national economies are increasingly under great pressure – a revolution is coming.

WonkHE named Barber the most powerful person in HE in 2017, noting his ‘legendary fondness for metrics,’ while the OfS began recruiting high-profile positions in data analytics ‘for those who understand the latest thinking in data science practice and how data can support policy development.’

The combination of BIS, HERA and Barber’s OfS represent the most visible aspects of current HE reform. As Neil Selwyn argues, ‘neoliberal logics’ of competition, performance measurement, quality management, marketization, commercialization and privatization have been growing in HE around the globe for many years, and are part of an increasingly powerful ideal of ‘digital universities’ which use data and metrics for monitoring performance and planning.  Underlying the reforms, however, is a less acknowledged project to upgrade and rebuild the data infrastructure that will allow the necessary information to be collected, analysed and put to use. The business of marketization in HE, as Janja Komljenovic and Susan Robertson have argued, involves ‘not just people, but technologies such as software, algorithms, computers, procedures and so on, in a rich collage of people, technology and programmes … that align the work of the university with the logics of capitalist markets.’

Data Futures
The enactment of HERA and the OfS will depend on massive quantities of data from universities, and also the utilization of new digital technologies to collect and process those data. In the last couple of years, as a recent Westminster event illustrates, government has begun to take more and more interest in ‘the role of big data and learning analytics for universities, including targeted marketing of prospective students, improving retention and personalising learning experience for individuals.’

Similarly, a collaboration between the Higher Education Commission and the think tank Policy Connect has produced From Bricks to Clicks: The potential of data and analytics in Higher Education to focus on the use of ‘fluid data’ that is ‘generated through the increasingly digital way a student interacts with their university.’ It highlights the potential of learning analytics to ‘improve the student experience at university, by allowing the institution to provide targeted and personalised support and assistance to each student.’ The government’s major 2017 Industrial Strategy also committed investment in big data, AI and machine learning within digital courses.

These future aspirations are beginning to be realized through the ‘Data Futures’ program being undertaken by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA). Designated the official statistics and data body for HE since 1993, HESA compiles huge quantities of data about students, staff and institutions, departments, courses and finances, as well as performance indicators used to evaluate and compare providers. It maintains the data infrastructure for HE recording and reporting first established in its current form in 1994.

Data Futures is HESA’s flagship data infrastructure upgrade program, which it initiated as part of its corporate strategy in 2016, in response to government demands, and plans to operationalize fully by 2020. Funded with £7.5million from the HE funding councils, Data Futures is intended to enhance HE data quality, reduce duplication, and make data more useful and useable by members of the public, policymakers, providers, and the media. Its first priority is upgrading the systems for student data collection and analysis, in order to satisfy government demands that prospective students, as potential consumers of HE, can receive the best possible information about courses and providers, while current students might be able to monitor their own progress and rate the value-for-money provision they receive from their chosen courses.

The data infrastructure model being developed by HESA was first proposed through a series of reports by the global consulting firms Deloitte and KPMG, as part of the Higher Education Data and Information Improvement Programme (HEDIIP) hosted by HESA. In 2013 Deloitte produced ‘a proposal for a coherent set of arrangements for the collection, sharing and dissemination of data for the higher education data and information landscape.’ KPMG followed it with a ‘blueprint’ 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.’

In the KPMG blueprint, used to establish Data Futures, HESA is positioned as a central ‘data warehouse’ for all HE data collection and access. Rather than once-a-year reporting, under Data Futures all HE providers will be required to conduct ‘in-year’ reporting. This will speed up the flow of data between institutions and HESA, and enable HESA to produce analyses and make them available to the public, media and policymakers more swiftly.

Writing in the Times Higher Education, HESA’s chief executive Paul Clark has described how the environment in which HE institutions operate is becoming increasingly data-intensive, with policymakers, students, funders and regulators all seeking information for their own purposes and needs:

Good data allow students to make informed choices, allow policymakers and regulators to make better decisions, promote public trust and confidence in the system, enable institutions to be competitive and provide a lever to incentivise or penalise behaviour in the absence of public funding.

At the same time as these ‘trends are being driven by developments in higher education policy,’ added Clark in another piece, ‘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.

In this context, Data Futures instantiates, perhaps, a tentative first move toward the use of ‘live data’ and ‘real-time metrics’ which could be used for continuous performance measurement and comparison of the competitive HE market of providers. Although a real-time data model was suggested in the KPMG blueprint, Data Futures is not going quite that far, just yet. As Clark noted in his THE article,

Further developments can build out from this – providing enhanced analytical tools for users and providers, opening up larger stores of data for analysis and innovation, linking datasets across government departments and policy areas to improve decision-making and reducing the transactional costs associated with data flows around the sector.

While its first goal is to implement in-year reporting, HESA is clearly positioning itself to introduce advanced digital data methods and large linked datasets drawn from across government departments into some aspects of HE reporting and decision-making.

Data platforms and dashboards
Although Data Futures appears rather mundane as an effort to streamline and improve student data collection and analysis, it is an immense organizational and technical undertaking. At its core is the construction of a new ‘data platform’ for data collection, and new ‘data dashboards’ and visualization technologies to analyse the data and communicate results.

With regard to the data platform, HESA released a specification document in 2016 for potential suppliers. 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. Behind 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.

The appointed supplier to deliver the specification, announced in 2017, is Civica, 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.’ In its announcement of the contract, HESA said Civica would deliver an ‘improved data model and extended capabilities [which] will offer users of HESA data a regular flow of accessible information through an enhanced user interface and visualisation tools.’

Data dashboard development to communicate findings from the data platform is being undertaken through a collaboration between HESA itself and Jisc (Joint Information Services Committee) as part of their ‘business intelligence shared service.’ The Analytics Labs collaboration provides an agile data processing environment using ‘advanced education data analytics’ in order ‘to rapidly produce analyses, visualisations and dashboards for a wide variety of stakeholders to aid with decision making.’ It emphasizes ‘cutting-edge data manipulation and analysis,’ access to current and historic data for time series analysis of the sector, and competitor benchmarking, using the Heidi Plus software platform provided by the commercial supplier Tableau Server.

Notably, early in 2018 HESA signed an agreement with both The Guardian and The Times newspapers to use Heidi Plus to produce interactive HE dashboards of rankings and measures based on their league tables. This, claimed HESA, would ‘enable universities to accurately and rapidly compare and analyse competitor information at provider and subject level, changes in rank year on year,’ and ‘the highest climbers and the biggest “fallers.”’ It also noted that the dissemination and presentation of league table data help shape public opinion about different providers.

The data platform being built by Civica, twinned with dashboards produced using Heidi Plus, are therefore interfaces to the data infrastructure being built by HESA. Together, these software platforms enable student data to be collected, analysed, visualized and circulated to the public, the press, providers themselves, and policymakers and politicians—and in so doing, to shape opinion and influence decision-making. As such, these systems of measurement and visualization are intimately tied to political ambitions to subject HE to increased marketization and competition.

Measurement and visualization are never simply neutral representations. As David Beer has argued, ‘systems of measurement become powerful’ as ‘mechanisms of competition,’ especially when the results of those measurements are disseminated and circulated to circumscribe future possibilities. Moreover, Jamie Bartlett and Nathaniel Tkacz have described how data dashboards ‘bring about a new “ambience of performance”, whereby members of staff or the public become more attuned to how whatever is measured is performing.’ Metrics and their graphical representation shape how people and institutions think, behave, compare themselves, and act to change themselves based on those representations.

The metrics operating inside the Data Futures platform and dashboards, in this sense, are mechanisms of competition and performance measurement within the HE sector, acting to make marketization part of the ambient conditions of Higher Education. They  extend governmental ambitions around increased metricization and marketization through the computer interface and into the eyes, hands and decisions of university administrators and leaders. As HESA’s Andy Youell has written, the work to build a new HE information landscape is not so much about systems but about ‘changing behaviours’ and ‘changing attitudes to the value of data within institutions.’

A market of smart, connected universities
The utopian dream behind current efforts to reform HE, of which Data Futures provides the material infrastructure, is that marketization and competition will drive up innovation within universities. An innovative HE sector is at the forefront of the 2017 Industrial Strategy. The ‘winners’ will be those institutions able to provide measurable evidence of innovation and quality in research, teaching, and impact on society. Student data, in addition to ratings of research excellence, teaching excellence and knowledge exchange, are to become the measure of market competitiveness.

But Data Futures also signals a more long-term utopian vision of the future of the sector. In a 2016 article, HESA’s chief executive Paul Clark wrote in visionary terms of a future HE in which learning analytics are part of teaching intervention, research performance metrics are pervasive, policymakers routinely base decisions on sector data, and ‘universities are gathering and benchmarking more and more data to ensure they are operating efficiently, and competing effectively with their peers’:

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.

Although Data Futures alone won’t deliver this vision when it rolls out nationwide in 2020, it is building the infrastructure necessary for new data-driven universities of the imagined future.

Late in 2017, in fact, HESA ran the Data Matters conference for HE data practitioners and leaders, where it not only showcased Data Futures developments but also hosted speakers and panels on the latest developments in big data, learning analytics, data dashboards and visualization. Data Futures is establishing the necessary infrastructure to support the application of these technologies as part of a utopian vision of smart, connected universities driven by market demands and real-time metrics. It is also worth noting that there are similar ambitions to create a national student data network in the US, through the campaigning of the Postsecondary Data Collaborative and Gates Foundation funding.

Much more remains to be done to unpack and understand these new infrastructure projects and the implications of accelerating and expanding student data collection and analysis. This post simply represents a first attempt to map some aspects of the new data infrastructure that will orchestrate aspects of UK HE in years to come. It’s an infrastructure made up of policies, people, organizations and future imaginings as much as technologies, and an ideal illustration of a dynamic sociotechnical network in which politics, practices and technologies interpenetrate one another. It also highlights how governance of HE is extended across software companies, think tanks and consultancies, as well as government departments, public bodies and arms-length agencies, and of how software can act as a relay of government strategy into university planning.

As part of the regulatory apparatus for a reformed HE, controversial appointees to the board of the OfS have understandably generated concern. But they should not distract attention from current ongoing infrastructural work to establish a new digital architecture for Higher Education that universities, staff and students will inhabit for decades.

Image by Thomas Williams
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