As the sector gears up for the changes heralded by Data Futures, it’s an opportune moment to look back at the first ever HESA submission which took place twenty-five years ago. Andy Youell spoke to two people who played a key role in that first collection.
A different world
The early 1990s was a period of great change in the HE sector. The binary divide between polytechnics and universities was removed and the organisations that worked across the sector – including funding, admissions, quality and data – were re-cast to support the new post-binary world. The creation of HESA was the biggest shake-up in HE data since the first Universities Statistical Record collection in 1968 and the new HESA Student Record was a step-change in sophistication compared to its predecessors.
From the outset the HESA Student Record was collected twice for each academic year and the 1994/95 returns were known as the December-94 and July-95 collections. The December collection covered activity between 1 August and 1 December and the collection opened on 1 December with a return date of 15 January. In 2001 the decision was taken to drop the in-year (December) collection though it looks like something like this will be brought back in Data Futures.
Building the first return
The first HESA staff started work on 2 January 1993 and HESA had just under two years to create and publish the record specifications (across all data streams) and to stand up the systems to collect and process the data. The Student Record specification was drafted during 1993 and finalised in early 1994, less than a year before the collection opened.
Helen Skitt joined HESA to form the institutional liaison function in early 1994 and her role was working between the institutions and the statutory customers – promoting and supporting the record specification and working to clarify the specification as abstract data concepts started to hit up against real-world examples. Establishing and clarifying the coding frames and the reason required statement for each field was sometimes a struggle in a period of such enormous change.
Helen recalls HESA as a very small organisation in those days. It had grown to just over a dozen staff when that first collection ran and an organisation of that size couldn’t afford to have anybody who wasn’t hands-on. “We visited a lot of individual institutions and sector groups, trying to build relationships and assure the institutions that we were there to help them.” Although I get the impression that occasionally Helen felt that they had to do the talk and then run which was quite a challenge since Brian Ramsden (HESA CEO) had a broken ankle at the time.
Debbie Price was Head of Management Information at the West London Institute of Higher Education and in that role had lead responsibility for making external data returns including FESR (one of the forerunners of the HESA return) and the HESES return to the funding council. “I remember there was a lot of planning for the HESA return – very early in advance – and that John Carman, the college Registrar, was closely involved. The HESA coding manual was a huge ring binder with different coloured pages and there were lots of consultations and updates as the data specification was finalised.”
In the early 1990s student registration typically involved students filling out forms which then had to be manually keyed into systems. Debbie recalls that the focus was on driving out errors from the data. “There were sheets and sheets of error reports – it was a lot of work to clean the data before we could make the submission.”
HESA also worked with systems that are a world away from today’s technology. The entire operation was run on a 26 gigabyte file server and all of the data processing took place using a FoxPro database system running on a Windows PC. The first collections had basic validity checks but there was no cross checking between fields and none of the sophisticated quality assurance that now characterises the HESA collection process.
A step into the unknown
It might seem bizarre today but in 1994 there was some uncertainty about exactly how many institutions would submit; it was quite normal that some of the pre-HESA data collections did not achieve complete coverage. Helen remembers it well: “Although it is taken as read now, getting a complete return from every institution in that first collection was a huge achievement and it was only possible because of tremendous efforts on the part of the institutions. We were enormously grateful for the efforts that were made.”
The other thing that seems bizarre now is that the policy of only accepting electronic data submissions was such a big deal. Helen remembers institutions asking for copies of the submission forms and one institution even asking how big the letterbox at HESA was. There was a very real concern that some institutions would simply not be able to make an electronic return and in a few cases some extreme on-site support had to be undertaken just to get a valid data file.
A new era
At one minute past midnight on the night of 30 November 1994, Debbie Price and the team at West London Institute of HE logged on to the HESA FTP server and uploaded their student return. A brief message was posted on the Mailbase email system (the forerunner to Jiscmail) and the following morning the team were greeted with messages from across the sector congratulating them; the era of HESA reporting had dawned.
Debbie remembers the event well. “We didn’t think of it as making history; we were just working to the 1 December deadline. It was exciting and a little bit nerve-wracking. We came in to work the next day and saw the emails about us making the first return. It seemed to generate a lot of interest but I thought this is just what we do.”
Ultimately, for both HESA and the institutions, the key to success was teamwork. Debbie recalls “we had a really good IT team who were running an in-house student records system - we couldn’t have done it without them”. For Helen at HESA the team was more complex. “I think we had a very close working relationship with statutory customers and with senior staff at institutions. The engagement with senior staff was far more prominent than in later years when HESA reporting became more routine.”
Getting that first collection in was a huge achievement though there were some big data quality issues with the December-94 collection. At HEFCE I built the first HESA/HESES comparison and the focus quickly shifted from standing the whole thing up to getting the data quality to a usable level.
West London Institute of HE became a part of Brunel University in the late 1990s and Debbie Price now works in international student recruitment with another university. “I occasionally attend university meetings and hear reference to HESA; I quietly smile to myself. I have many happy memories of working with such a great team.”
Andy Youell is a writer, speaker and strategic data advisor. Formerly the Director of Data Policy and Governance at HESA, Andy has been at the leading edge of data issues across higher education for over 25 years. His work has covered all aspects of the data and systems lifecycle and in recent years has focussed on improving the HE sector’s relationship with data. Follow him on Twitter @AndyYouell