Open data opportunities in higher education

Sharing data openly offers huge benefits for higher education and institutions must make the most of it, says Ian Powling, digital programmes lead at Universities UK.

While universities have begun to recognise the value of openly sharing data, they have yet to give its potential for advancing efficiency and effectiveness the attention it deserves.

As the volume of data expands rapidly and technologies to capture and manipulate it become more sophisticated, governments, businesses and public bodies have all begun to investigate how it could help them create new products and services. The higher education sector, data-rich and always keen to explore new horizons, is at the forefront of this activity.

The University of Southampton’s  open data service now provides open access to administrative data from weekly food hygiene ratings to the location of vending machines on campus. The initiative provides a central hub for open and linked data sets across the sector, while the service provides a one-stop shop for accessing UK-wide higher education research equipment. Jisc is developing services to help universities manage, share and access research outputs more openly and cost-effectively. And  key information sets, published under open government licence, have transformed the amount of information available to students.

But how can these kinds of activities make universities more efficient?

Great strides

While the higher education sector has already made great strides in improving efficiency, delivering more than £1.38bn of savings between 2005 and 2011, universities face an increasingly complex, global landscape and an imminent, potentially inhospitable, government spending review. Further efficiencies will be essential.

That is why a programme of work is underway, led by Sir Ian Diamond, principal and vice-chancellor of the University of Aberdeen and coordinated by Universities UK, to explore new areas in which universities could advance efficiencies, and identify ways in which open data can help.

Working in partnership with the Open Data Institute, Universities UK has brought together a group of leading higher education institutions, the National Union of Students and Jisc to examine how open data can bring tangible benefits to the sector.

The project will explore whether improved analytics from open data can support student engagement, retention and outcomes. It also aims to find out whether datasets compiled both in the sector and by third-parties could help institutions attract students and whether the sector could make better use of data to lower costs and streamline processes such as procurement. Finally, it is looking at whether open data has a role in collecting and sharing information to help manage assessment.

The project team, which aims to complete its work by next summer, will create an open data application to support the student experience at university, and will explore the practical challenges of developing and implementing open data across higher education.

It will also find out where there is potential to publish datasets, develop customised open data training, create a road map for future work in the sector, and draft a white paper setting out the case for more open data to be adopted across higher education.

Data skills mapping

Meanwhile, a broader range of work on data in the sector is underway. Universities UK is helping universities secure their own data in this increasingly data-rich environment, and is carrying out a study mapping graduates’ data skills to the needs of UK businesses. It is also working with Research Councils UK and a range of stakeholders towards articulating a set of principles for openness in the research domain. At the same time, the Higher Education Data and Information Improvement Programme is enhancing arrangements for collecting, sharing and disseminating data and information about higher education following the 2011 white paper Students at the Heart of the System, which called for the HE information landscape to be redesigned “in order to arrive at a new system that meets the needs of a wider group of users; reduces the duplication that currently exists, and results in timelier and more relevant data”.

The journey towards greater openness in data is not without challenges. In addition to concerns about privacy or technical feasibility, there are commercial or cultural pressures. Prevailing business models can constrain the opening of data, even when a sector-wide benefit can be demonstrated. Institutions can take the view that being open would erode competitive advantage or devalue intellectual property.

And yet the potential is undoubtedly there for open data flows to help universities attract students and enhance their learning experience, help optimise operational systems and buying power, and provide the insights and responsiveness that they will need in the future.

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Ian Powling
Senior Education Advisor CCEG