Using data to rise up the rankings

In an increasingly competitive environment, Gary Bell discusses how universities can use data for league table success

Higher education is a competitive space. There are more than 130 universities in direct competition in the UK, all competing to attract students from across the country, and beyond. Those within the sector are all too aware that an institution’s standing within the league tables directly impacts their ability to attract students. However, according to figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), university applications were down by 11,000 last year despite a surge in interest from overseas students. And, as those prospective students that universities so desperately want to attract are much more technology-savvy and demanding, universities must move quickly to transform themselves into educational institutions fit for a technology-assisted future.

The key to providing a better and more personalised experience for students is understanding their wants and needs in the first place – and this is where data comes into play. However, for many traditional institutions the move to becoming data- and insights-driven won’t be easy. Here, we discuss three of the key challenges that universities in the UK must overcome to remain competitive and continue to be a top choice for students both from home and abroad.

Recognise your standing
For a university to understand its position in the league tables it’ll take more than looking at its standing and how far it has climbed or fallen. Universities must analyse the performance of those above and beneath their current position and ask what they are doing differently. And what can be done to improve to overtake those above?

Ultimately, institutions must look outside of their own organisation, while looking within to glean insights into what improvements can be made. Data has the power to provide this. Through use of a single data platform, universities can analyse results year-on-year and look at where they have made improvements and where they still have a way to go. They can then make better-informed investment decisions on where to focus time and budget to ensure they’re not only rising up the rankings but also providing the best experience for students and faculty members.

Get a holistic view
There is no doubt that the need for real-time access to key data and its context is fundamental to any organisation transforming the way it operates. Many universities may argue that they already collect data on student numbers and attendance, for example, but how accurate and up to date is it? And does the organisation have the skills and resources to accurately analyse and interpret it?

The first step to gaining insight from data is having clear, structured information which is uniform across all departments in the university. For example, any university should be able to access real-time data on how many students are currently registered and attending courses, what the retention and attendance rate is across departments, and importantly, how it compares to others.

Universities must also use data to improve the student experience. Let’s use the example of a student who attends university but lives a two-hour commute away due to caring for a parent. Through taking a 360-degree view, a university can spot the challenges a student may face coming to lectures and organise their timetable to ensure they don’t have any early morning or late lectures which they would be unable to attend.

Collaboration is crucial
To get this clean data there must be standard procedures in place to enable comparisons and analysis across departments and universities.

Typically, every university department and institution has its own set of procedures, but to provide students with a common experience, standardisation would be beneficial. This means putting in place a single credit framework, single marking criteria, standardised submission dates and the same resit policy across the board.

If this was in place, institutions across the UK could accurately compare their information on students and spot trends to boost university numbers and reduce dropout rates.

For example, if data across the sector shows that a 10% dropout rate is the average, universities can accurately watch this and action if dropout rates rise above this figure. That’s why it’s crucial that universities have a team of people who can understand and track this data to keep an eye on it. This is where leadership comes in. As well as academic leaders, universities need commercially astute leaders who understand the financial and wider business impact of student attendance and retention and focus on resolving any issues. Because ultimately, not only will this help universities financially, it will also help drive league table rankings.

A unified data platform
Many university leaders today feel quite far removed from the end goal. This is why having an outcomes-focused partner who can break the journey down into achievable and manageable chunks is crucial to enacting change which both benefits students, and streamlines work for faculty members, while ensuring investment is focused on areas most in need.

Fundamental change in how processes are run will take a significant amount of time – but universities need to start now. By bringing together fragmented, disparate information sets from separate departments, creating a complete, holistic view of each student. Organisations can break down the silos to create a single, reliable version of the truth – unlocking greater efficiency, accuracy and the ability to make more informed decisions. An effective data strategy and Master Data Management (MDM) solution can help universities create better – and more personalised – experiences for students.

Higher education institutions need only look to other sectors to appreciate the importance of understanding and governing data to provide improved outcomes.

At North Lanarkshire Council, MDM is enabling the council to reinvigorate their approach to digital transformation and the services they offer citizens. Peter Tolland, its chief information officer, says: “[MDM] is what digital engagement should look like in the future… in terms of the access to the clean data we need to make this a reality, our MDM solution is at the heart of it all.” Similarly in Ealing, the council uses an off-the-shelf MDM platform to better tackle fraud and error. Kevin Griffin, chief architect, states: “By investing in Civica MDM we will make a single-citizen view part of our business as usual, allowing our IT function to canvass the business to come up with more and more use-cases to create further efficiencies.”

Without doubt, a single, unified data platform and integrated services are crucial to the future of higher education. Through a well-considered data strategy delivering better insights, institutions can provide a complete, accurate and sharable view of their data to make more informed decisions. To meet the challenges of an ever-changing digital landscape, universities need access to clean, accessible, reliable and understandable data – only then will they see the bigger picture and sustain their position higher up the league table.


Gary Bell is executive director at Civica: www.civica.com