We are all, I suspect, a bit ambivalent about data. On the one hand, we all make use of it most of the time: we are booking a restaurant or a holiday, buying a new domestic appliance, using a local builder or repairer, and we look up their ratings. We try to sift what others have said about them, looking at the five-star ratings and the one-star ratings. We all depend on other people’s data. On the other hand, our data trails make us nervous. We know that our search histories and our social media footprints define us. Our Spotify playlists and our Netflix viewing histories funnel us in specific directions. We know that our data can be parcelled up and sold on, and we are nervous about what the algorithms say about us. We’ve seen the deeply troubling ways in which political parties and shadowy consultants use such data to reinforce stereotypes and sow distrust. But either way, we all know we live in a world increasingly defined by data, shaped by algorithms which will make predictive assumptions about us.
The University, of course generates vast amounts of data in the course of its every day operations. That data can be a powerful tool to address disparities in experience, attainment and outcomes, and we are increasingly confident in our use of data to understand where we are doing well and where we need to do better. Increasingly across the sector, there is not just interest in, but increasingly thoughtful and focused use of analytic data on student engagement with learning, with support services and so on to help ensure that learning needs are met and inequalities understood and addressed. Every university is making use, now of learning analytics, and Hallam is one of the many universities deploying Jisc’s learning analytics tools.
One of my roles beyond the University has been to chair the Higher Education Statistics Agency. Since 1992, HESA has been a vital entity in the higher education data landscape, allowing UK higher education to have a head start globally on the use of data and analytics to inform decision making and bench-marking. Under the 2017 Higher Education and Research Act, HESA was appointed the ‘designated data body’ to draw together data across the sector. In 2022, HESAs long-awaited merger with Jisc was completed, joining HESA’s world-class data collection and analytic capabilities with Jisc’s expertise in managing the higher education technology infrastructure; I now chair Jisc’s data oversight board to ensure that the statutory obligations under the 2017 Act are delivered, that the data landscape reflects the needs of universities and students and, vitally, that data protection and security protocols are firmly embedded. Later this year, HESA in its Jisc form will complete the delivery of the large-scale Data Futures project which will fundamentally overhaul higher education’s data architecture.
If this all sounds technical stuff, it is. But the most interesting questions are social, educational and ethical: how can we most effectively use data to shape the way higher education develops; how can we continue to ensure that data protection is embedded and that the different needs of different stakeholders are balanced. Alongside the challenging technical and ethical issues are some really tough ones about the future. It’s becoming clear that over the next decade, the operations and strategy of higher education – and not just higher education – will be fundamentally shifted by developments in the use and availability of data. In some ways, higher education is behind the curve. Retail has been disrupted by the data revolution: witness the ways in which we all turn to the web for expensive purchases where we can access more data on other consumers’ experiences. Retail was probably not the leader: the dating industry was there first: something like fifty per cent of all romantic relationships now begin online, with a right-swipe on a mobile phone.
The university is engaged with data transformation in other ways. Amongst our fastest growing courses are those in artificial intelligence and data science, as students anticipate the ways in which their futures will be shaped. Engineering provision is anticipating the demands of Industry 4.0, and our construction and built environment courses are looking to the demands of smart construction.
I began with the ambivalence we all have about our data and the way we engage with a data-rich world, but it’s equally true that none of us can really duck the issues which society, institutions and individuals are all grappling with. Data powers the twenty-first century economy and pervades the twenty-first century society. Our task is to harness it for good.