How data can help universities prepare for uncertainty

James Clay, head of higher education at Jisc, explains why we need data visions in higher education, and how we can work together to create them

Uncertainty is the word of the moment. The higher education (HE) sector has been under increasing strain for the last eight months, with little idea as to when pandemic restrictions will be lifted or relaxed. It’s important that institutions have an idea of how data can help universities, and be used to support the student experience. However, sometimes looking into the future is the easy part. It can be harder figuring out how to fulfil that vision and the steps required to get there.

Using data for decision-making is a journey, and an important part of being able to plan for it is knowing where you are in the present, and the direction you have come from. The same is true of data collection and analysis. Usually, universities can rely on historical data sets to compare against current data and observe trends. However, the Covid-19 pandemic has affected the sector in ways we’ve never seen before. Therefore, that historical data is not relevant to the current situation. This means journey-planning needs to start from scratch – so collecting clean data and having a robust strategy in place will be essential as the HE sector emerges from this unforeseen disruption.

How data can help universities: a shared understanding

Conversations about data are increasingly common now, especially following the topic’s catapult into the mainstream media in recent years. But understanding fully how to create and implement a data strategy can be complicated, and institutions can benefit from sharing ideas and best practice. There is an assumption that everybody understands the ins and outs of data, but despite pockets of extensive knowledge throughout the HE sector, not everyone is a data expert – nor should they have to be.

Most people know how data factors into their specific role, within a silo, but implementing an organisation-wide data strategy means breaking out of these siloes and coming together with peers to discuss how to ensure interoperability between systems and processes. An essential element of using data to inform strategy and vision is having a single source of truth, and making sure that source is available to relevant areas of the organisation.

Setting the story straight

Data provides a foundation on which to build a narrative and that can help universities understand more about the uncertainty they are facing, see why they are facing it, and identify ways in which they can ready themselves. Preparing for uncertainty may sound like an oxymoron, but developing flexibility and agility within an organisation will allow for swifter action when things change.

Building a robust data foundation can help. Considering an ethical framework, GDPR requirements, data cleanliness, and other aspects will all help to ensure that an institutions’ view of data is as clear as possible, and that any analysis and subsequent decision-making is as accurate as it can be.

An uncertain future is inevitable. But if data is used in the right way, to the best of its – and our – ability, and if organisations work together to understand how the HE sector can best utilise the tools at its disposal, we’re on the right track.

To connect with peers and discuss how data can impact higher education, sign up to Data Matters, an online event in partnership with QAA and Hesa, running from 26-27 January 2021. Early bird booking is available until 30 November

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