Past, present, future: HE data challenges in focus

14 June 2022 - Past, present, future: HE data challenges in focus

Deborah Green, CEO, UCISA

For the thousands of students due to be awarded their graduation certificates this summer, university studies may all too quickly become a distant memory as they embark on the next chapter of their lives. But their student data and records will be kept by the institution through every decade of their working life, which is only set to extend further than before.

With the past, present, and future all playing a role in how the higher education (HE) sector collects, stores, and utilises the wealth of data at hand, addressing the challenges faced by the sector requires us to look in all directions. In a recent InterSystems Data Dialogue podcast, I joined Mike Fuller, InterSystems Director of Marketing in the UK, to explore some of the big data questions facing UK universities. Let’s take a look at the challenges.

Past challenge: uncharted waters

A wide spectrum of support services also had to move fully online during the first wave of the pandemic. Interestingly, it was found that many students felt much more comfortable and less exposed accessing wellbeing and mental health support digitally. Even now, as many face-to-face services resume, it seems unlikely that we’ll go back to the days of solely having one student and one counsellor in a single room.

Recent experience has certainly transformed how HE will be delivered in years to come. But to sustain this level of digital transformation requires huge market and data analysis – along with a raft of security challenges to overcome. How can universities build on their successes and address the data dilemmas that remain?

Present challenge: legacy infrastructure and connectivity

Like any town or city, higher education’s digital estate grows organically over time, with parts of it built to suit a very specific purpose at a very specific period. Some of these systems are legacy or on-premise; others are in the cloud and more suitable for modern ways of working. To connect these highly different types of digital estate is a complex endeavor.

It is, however, a necessary one. Universities are increasingly expected to provide the government with vast numbers of returns on students and graduate outcomes. This places a substantial reporting burden on the HE sector, as pressure grows to deliver data at ever-growing levels of speed and accuracy with minimal funding. It also necessitates the transfer of sensitive data in digital formats – a challenge also faced by student support departments that need to share highly personal data securely and reliably with several professionals or different advisors.

Every HE institution has a different digital estate, but all can take steps to streamline processes and make them more intuitive and secure for the people they serve. UCISA works closely with strategic partners, including InterSystems, to empower universities with the tools and services to ensure they make strong business decisions about where to invest their time and resources. The insights provided are critical in helping the HE sector to harness the huge amount of data it holds and guarantee real-time data exchange and connectivity between systems.

Future challenges? A look ahead…

As the number of 18-year-olds in the UK is set to rise sharply, the sector can expect a huge spike in demand for further and higher education over the coming years. But what universities cannot fully pre-empt is how the students of 2032 (and beyond) will like to learn, or what they will choose to study. Will there be a desire for modular lifelong learning that HE providers can augment and add to?

Institutions need robust, up-to-date data to build a stronger understanding of what lies ahead and ensure that the services of the future are fit for purpose. After all, high-quality data informs high-quality strategy.

The HE sector has already proven its resilience: at the height of the pandemic, the most agile teams delivered years’ worth of digital strategy in a matter of weeks. Augmenting and investing in a reliable data management platforms will now ensure that universities make more effective use of their data, so that they can rise to the challenges ahead and make fast, informed decisions to benefit the students of the future.