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HESA Data Futures - Where Did It All Go Wrong?

By Laura Jackson, Principal Consultant / 07 December 2023

A close up image of computer code

The sign off date for the first HESA Data Futures (HDF) submission has now passed. What should have been a celebration of a significant milestone in the journey towards in-year data submissions has instead seen institutions limping towards the finish line, dragging their data with them. The regulator has announced the need for an independent review of the processes. So how did we get here, and what can be done?

The Road to In-Year Reporting

HDF has been in the making for nearly a decade. Good quality data is fundamental for strategy, governance, and regulation of the higher education sector, and the benefits of the programme were clear. Timely, quality data enables institutions to plan and, crucially, intervene to respond to issues ranging from recruitment to student support and financial planning. The foundations had been laid by the early work of the Higher Education Data and Information Improvement Programme, and planning and engagement with institutions had been frequent and detailed.

Yet the OfS letter to Accountable Officers on 13th November 2023 tells a different story. The instability of the IT platform used by the Designated Data Body, and concerns about the quality and usability of the data are referenced by the regulator as reasons to postpone in-year reporting. This will not be a decision taken lightly, particularly considering the non-conciliatory stance the regulator has taken thus far. The knock-on impact to other returns – and notably the funding allocation announcements –demonstrate the difficulty of this decision. Perhaps most notably though, are the references to the wellbeing of the staff involved. The OfS statement that 'We know this is having a significant impact on providers' barely scratches the surface of the lived experience of staff over the last few years.

Technological Changes

Whilst HDF was never going to be ‘just an IT project’ –this is how many institutions had to treat it to access resources. There is some sense in this: for in-year reporting, there needs to be radical changes to the structure of student records systems. But these systems enable core parts of the student journey: admissions, registration, exam boards, and graduations. Developments needed to be prioritised against the needs of all users and requirements which do not directly impact the student experience, such as those within Data Futures, are often low down this list. There are also downstream users of the data within the system, each bringing their own technical requirements, impacting on design. Finding a window for implementation of in-year reporting against all these requirements was never going to be straightforward.

Shifting Goalposts

Whilst the overall vision for HDF has remained consistent, the details of implementation have changed dramatically. Those who may remember the short-lived ‘delta increments’ of continuous data updates in the early versions of HDF may be glad of the more stable reference periods for data updates, but the exact specification has been a long time coming. The Designated Data Body, was still consulting on the schema in January 2022, just over a year before in-year reporting was due. Further decisions were promised in July that year but did not materialise until months later.

Not only does this lack of clarity pose problems for mobilising a technological response, there are also governance, training, and cultural repercussions. It’s not clear where you capture new requirements, how these are fit into cross-institutional processes, what sign offs might be required, and the level of staff training and capacity needed to meet requirements. There are knock on effects to other processes which can tangibly affect institutional and regulatory reporting, as well as, crucially, staff morale.

Institutional Understanding

Data Futures is an institutional change project, and as such, requires a full institutional response. Data has not historically had the level of profile within higher education providers required to deliver sweeping change. Senior champions for statutory data are relatively few. Considering that data informs league tables, finances, performance indicators, planning and much more of reputational importance, this lack of prioritisation is at odds with the ideal of the data driven university seen in most strategies.

The excellent WonkHE article ‘The Imp in the Machine’ sums up the problem of the HESA return nicely: the job of statutory returns is to wrestle inconsistent institutional processes into a consistent and coherent picture. This needs to meet the needs of all stakeholders and presents an institution well. The magic lies in translating the complex stories of transfers, deferrals, suspensions, module changes, mitigating circumstances and individual choice into clean, understandable data outputs. This is difficult – both to do in practice and to communicate. .As such, HESA returns have generally remained firmly ‘back office’ functions. Making the case for change of a complex, invisible process without support at all levels of the institution, and indeed the sector, is an unenviable task.


Furthermore, the expectations put on staff implementing HDF has been immense. The pressure to make technological, operational and cultural changes has been put squarely on the shoulders of those also doing the day-to-day work. Those who have been involved in statutory returns for a long time understood the potential impacts from the start. The SROC HESA Data Futures event in 2018 highlighted the concerns of those involved about just what it would take to get this over the line. Simply:

  • The skillset required to do returns well is varied, and hard to recruit to. There are few elements of a statutory return that can be done quickly without knowledge of the regulatory framework.

  • Most statutory teams are very lean, with a large portfolio of activities – there is no room for expansion of work.

  • No existing requirements will be removed or rolled into HDF for at least two years, meaning the current volume of work needs to be performed in addition to meeting new requirements.

  • The timescales for completion are brutal, the consequences of poor data are magnified and the risks are heightened with the reduction in quality assurance time.

  • Working harder is not an option. People are already working beyond capacity. There is no wriggle room.

So Where Does This Leave Us?

HESA Data Futures is here. In-year data returns are not. It is clear the conditions required to make in-year returns a success both from institutions and the regulator are not yet present. In the meantime, the experience so far shows us that:

  • Specialist data professionals could be made more prominent in institutional design and decision-making to support HDF (and data generally speaking) understanding and implementation

  • HEIs should frame HDF as an institution-wide change project, and 

    • allocate resource accordingly

    • review all data requirements (not just HDF)

    • prepare themselves for an increasingly data-led landscape 

  • Support and develop data specialists to retain the talent pipeline and support their well-being 

The independent review is vital in unpicking the experiences on both sides which led us to this point, and to find the path out. If the sector is invited to participate in the review, they should proactively respond for a better outcome.

But until then, now is the time to recognise what has been achieved. In spite of the uncertainty, the resources, the (dare I say it) burden of HDF – the sector has mobilised its data talent and delivered a significant change programme. The individual success stories of problem-solving, ingenuity and creativity should not be lost. In the face of adversity, the sector has once again shown that it is able to get things done, and this is worthy of celebration. 

If you’re interested in having a conversation with us about transformational change or professional development for specialists, get in touch.  


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