How do you solve the data problem in universities?

Data management in higher education needs a rethink, says David Bamford. Here's where to start

UK universities have a data problem. Well, if we’re being honest, it’s far more than one.

Fractured data landscapes, inconsistent policies and an institutional reticence to prioritise back office spending over investment in faculties are preventing universities from realising the value of their data or even meeting their regulatory obligations.

With new requirements on data, such as the GDPR and HESA Data Futures, bearing down on IT departments and admin teams across higher education, the time is very much here for data fundamentals to come front and centre in senior leadership team discussions.

A new approach is needed

Like their private sector counterparts, universities need to modernise their approach to data management. Focused investment is needed on data governance and quality; the foundation stones of efficient processes, data science and management information reporting. Structured data governance, with accountability and responsibility baked in at all levels is the first step in improving, and then transforming data into a valuable asset.

Industry disrupters are proving that specialists trump generalists every time

While the business case may be hard to justify in terms of outright return on investment, the consequences of inaction are more compelling. In May last year, data from a training conference not being properly governed led to the £120,000 fine issued to a London-based university, which would have undoubtedly been higher had it been calculated post-GDPR.

Specialists over generalists

In these rapidly changing times, chief information officers are increasingly turning to specialist small-to-medium enterprises to bring new thinking, cutting-edge technology and high responsiveness to revolutionise university data use in cost-effective packages. Industry disrupters are proving that specialists trump generalists every time.

Smaller expert providers can give clients the close relationships which allow them to tailor solutions to their needs and use one of their biggest assets, bright young student minds, creating a partnership with them to produce game-changing data innovations.

Targets need to be ambitious

With pressure coming on tuition fees, universities need to do more than meet the demands of the day. Ninety-nine per cent quality still means one in every hundred students experiencing issues with data, which, in an increasingly competitive marketplace, with active, tech-savvy ‘customers’, can be the difference in the all-important league tables and leave a mark on an institution’s reputation.

Understanding data assets, maintaining and leveraging them correctly is not only the key to unlocking cost savings and realise efficiencies across business as usual, but open new streams of revenue and research. If data is ‘the new oil’, refining it through good governance, enforced quality and robust process is the only way to turn it into the fuel which will power universities forward from the digital dark ages to a data-driven future.


David Bamford is head of deployment at IntoZetta