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Emerging HE policies highlight new political landscape

Interventionism is suddenly all the rage with the Westminster Conservative government, and higher education is feeling the impact as new policies and legislation are brought to bear on the sector, writes Johnny Rich, Chief Executive of Push and of the Engineering Professors’ Council.

Rethinking universities from the outside in

Mike Boxall, an independent researcher and consultant on higher education policies and strategies, and a senior adviser to PA Consulting, considers the emerging post-COVID world and its implications for the future of universities. His blog is based on a paper published recently by PA Consulting, and co-authored with its HE lead, Ian Matthias.

Is the government missing the real 'levelling up' value of HE?

The Westminster government should wake up to the full potential of higher education to help it meet its ‘levelling up’ goals, argues Professor Martin Jones, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Staffordshire University.

After a week of 'people power' it is time to listen to students

Jonathan Baldwin, managing director of higher education at Jisc, reflects on a week that’s felt the force of people power – and says it’s time for university leaders to respond to students’ calls for change.

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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