A couple of the presentations at the CISG conference last week focussed on what could be done to deliver improvements within the institution. The first of these, from the University of Exeter, concentrated on a project to improve the quality of data within the institution. There are consequences of poor data, particularly in the higher education sector where league tables are important factors for both staff and student recruitment. The interest in league tables is highlighted by the million hits on the Times Higher’s website after they published their world league table of institutions. There is also an operational cost of poor data. Firstly institutions spend a considerable time spent correcting data, particularly getting it right for statutory returns. Secondly there is a risk that poor data may result in incorrect decisions being made or that additional systems are developed to deliver management information as the core systems data is not trusted.
The Exeter project had two strands – correction and prevention. When correcting the current data, they looked to establish why there was a problem and identify the issues that were causing erroneous data to be created. The staff responsible for the data were involved throughout the process as errors were identified and corrected. However, errors will still creep in if staff do not understand why the data they are entering is required and what the consequences are if data is incorrect. Consequently there was an extensive training programme to explain what the data is used for and to highlight the implications of incorrect data. Training on the use of systems is now augmented by training on the use of the data within them.
The project recognised some key problem areas. One of these was around the data required for the HESA return and postcode data in particular. As a result of the project Exeter now employ a temp for 3 – 4 weeks following registration to clean student data. This has resulted in a big drop in postcode errors and although it has a cost of around £2k it has resulted in a £30k saving in staff time later in the year.
The need for data quality is something the Data Efficiency Group formed by HEFCE is striving to achieve. This has highlighted that few institutions have someone on their Executive Board that has responsibility for data; the then Chief Executive of HESA noted that Vice-Chancellors were only aware of problems at their institutions when HESA alerted them. Exeter clearly have senior ownership of information – in order for this project to succeed it needed senior management buy-in from the top but also the investment in training at the operational level. It strikes me as a model others could follow.