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Eventful week sees HE buffeted by spelling and campus re-opening rows

Alison Johns, Chief Executive of Advance HE, reviews another week in which higher education found itself in the spotlight, even when a royal funeral dominated the headlines.

Graduate earnings and HE admissions data mark another Groundhog Week in HE

Charlie Ball, Head of Higher Education Intelligence for Prospects at Jisc, reviews a week of higher education news which felt much like every other since lockdown, as new research on graduate earnings and university admissions was published.

Universities and students grapple with Covid and Brexit-related issues

Stephen Isherwood, chief executive of the Institute of Students Employers, reviews a week of HE news in which student accommodation, fee refunds, graduate jobs, and research funding surfaced as key issues.

Pandemic highlights gender inequality in HE

Reviewing a week in which issues affecting women’s lives were in the spotlight, Sandra Booth, Director of Policy and External Relations at the Council for Higher Education Art and Design (CHEAD), sees hopeful signs of moves to address gender equality in higher education.

Disadvantaged students and graduates need even more help in a pandemic

Commenting on a week of higher education news, Alice Gent, Policy, Research and Communications Intern, and Ruby Nightingale, Communications and Public Affairs Manager at the Sutton Trust, highlight evidence that Covid-19 is having a disproportionate impact on students and graduates from poorer backgrounds.

Advances in HE data should be on "fast forward" -- not "pause"

Data and learning analytics are like "gold dust" in higher education, and the sector cannot afford to put advances in this area on pause, argues Graham Cooper, Head of Education at Capita Education Software Solutions.

 

Big, and not a little frustrating, news in HE this week. The HESA Data Futures programme has been paused. Is this a postponement or a cancellation? Although the programme update suggests the beta will continue, no date for the first live data transfer has been given.

Similarly, last week, we learned that Brexit (of any flavour) is also at risk. Again, is this a postponement or a cancellation?  At the time of writing all I can say is ‘who knows?’

Both these issues are beautifully summed up by Alison Pope’s tweet, in which she points out how changes to the Data Futures and Brexit delivery timeframe “underlines how hard large scale transformational change is and how easily overtaken by events.”

Working for an HE software vendor, I am, of course interested in Data Futures, and how HEIs use data and technology. Last week, I visited a modern university to look at how they use data. As well as being struck by the energy of everyone I met, and the fresh, light, bright feel of the new buildings and modern learning spaces full of technology, I was deeply impressed by the vision  that underpins how this university is seeking to use data to focus on delivering the best possible experience and outcomes for its students. 

During my visit we discussed the use of data by leadership, academics and students themselves. We looked at information dashboards to monitor the institution’s health in relation to student experience, progress, admission numbers and likely TEF and NSS grading amongst other things. All of this was set against a backdrop of digital transformation of infrastructure, process automation and use of machine learning in a mobile, cloud, ‘big data’ enabled environment.

So far, so good. Lots of universities are doing this aren’t they? The answer is ‘yes’, and there are eight great examples in case studies provided in a Good Practice Briefing from HEi-know.

However, what made the visit more interesting was that I had read, the week before, a really interesting article in the New Statesman on the use of data in HE. In it, HE data is described as ‘gold dust’, with real potential to impact outcomes by having a much better understanding of the student body. This, of course, Is what it is driving the behaviours and strategies I witnessed above.

However, at its heart, the piece also presents a dilemma drawing out the “fine line between smart technology and surveillance.”

The university I visited was interested in tracking a student’s attendance, access to the VLE, library and the IT network and so on, and cross referencing this with other data points on ‘student engagement’ recorded on their accommodation, finance, and student information systems. By pooling data from these sources and using the data science of predictive analytics, they hope to be able to enhance the student experiences, spot early withdrawal risks, identify students on ‘unsuitable’ courses and intervene early in where a student’s wellbeing may be at risk.

And it is this latter reason that I think wins the technology versus intrusion argument. The New Statesman article referred to the tragic story of Bristol University student, Ben Murray, who took his own life just over a year ago. Since then, Ben’s father has met with Jisc to help them consider how using their developing Intelligent Campus solution, which will bring various data points together might help prevent such tragedies by sounding an early warning based on patterns of student engagement data that could signal a risk to personal well-being.

Just last week a major new report, based on the results of over 37,500 students from 140 universities revealed some startling statistics on student mental health, including that more than one-fifth of the student population have a current mental health diagnosis.

It’s pleasing to hear Phil Richards, Chief Innovation Officer at Jisc, make the point that “meaningful support comes from human beings, but technology, such as learning analytics,?can help to flag potential issues early on.”

So, I for one, hope that the Jisc learning analytics and smart campus initiatives continue to develop and do not suffer the same fate as HESA Data Futures and Brexit. And, back to Alison Pope’s tweet – getting meaningful interventions driven by learning analytics right will be hard, involving large scale transformational change. It could easily be overtaken by events. 

But let’s hope not.

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