All UK universities are required to make mandatory annual returns to the OfS (Office for Students, previously the HEFCE) to verify their government funding allocation. At Birmingham City University, meeting the deadline for the HESES (Higher Education Students Early Statistics Survey) Funding Return used to be a complex, manual process involving multiple spreadsheets, with information needing to be pulled together from several internal systems and external sources to complete the aggregated return.
Simon Pettifor ,Head of Business Analytics at the university, explains:
HESES requires quite an intensive period of time checking the data to make sure the data needed is all there, and that it's of the right quality. There is a fairly fixed period of time between the key census date, normally the 1st of December, and we then have about working to collate all of the data and put all the various different variables into the final form.
Pettifor argues that using a spreadsheet approach to doing this had just become too limiting.
Working in Excel is very linear; if you get to a point where you realise that something could not work out, you have to go back and start again, which used to mean we could lose an awful lot of time. It's going through all of those sorts of questions and then going back into the data and say, well, we've dropped this course, or we've, we've seen a few more withdrawals this year, or we've grown because we over recruited and we've got more students. All in all, doing it this way was a very intensive and potentially open to a certain amount of human error. We always got it done, but it was always a lot of long hours and a lot of worry and checking involved.
Given that at Birmingham City Pettifor and his colleagues have to enter the right data on all of its 25,000 students with a potential 10 to 40 data fields for each students, clearly a better way of doing this could really help. The issue is also slightly compounded by the fact that the University also has to produce another complex report, the year-end individualised HESA (Higher Education Statistics Agency) return, which is often an equally demanding data compilation task.
Pettifor says he’s achieved that by developing a system that now manages complex BI analysis for statutory requirements based on tools from US-headquartered data analytics specialist Alteryx.
The good news: Birmingham City University is still able to complete this vital piece of compliance within that working week - but has also put in place what he calls a repeatable process:
We need to make sure what we return to the OfS is the best quality and the highest level of accuracy that we can possibly deliver. This software we find easy to use, logical and intuitive, so is really helping us do that. And now, we can easily share workflows with colleagues and, unlike with spreadsheets, we can quickly see what was happening with the data.
As a result, we have a well-structured process that has got lots of points of data checking and data verification through it that we can assure ourselves and the leadership of the University that all of the external verification processes and questions we get back from the regulator have been dealt with in full, and detailed explanations provided. The clearer or transparent and well organised a workflow is is all the better in terms of providing that assurance to the sector regulator.”
The tool is also being used beyond HESES and the HESA work, however. An example that Pettifor offers is how a workload allocation model in use in his Department is being extended by a data analytics approach:
We need to prepare our student data to go into that system, and we use all sorts of tricks to do that, pulling the data out of its native systems, prepare it, then push it into the system. Analytics is proving to be quite useful in doing that. Plus, we have in the past done some work around predictive modeling - how many applications for places we have, and how many offers we've made to prospective students and what does all that mean in terms of the likelihood of them turning up and an attending and hopefully staying on and finishing their course. Again, this software has been very helpful there, while we've also found it a very useful prototyping tool to help complete our planned new data repository to help us do a better slicing and dicing about data.”
But Pettifor says that this data analytics success is also important in helping him create what he sees as a wider acceptance of what analytics can contribute across the University:
My job title is Head of Business Analytics, and at Birmingham City we have a very strong planning function to help us decide if we should we be growing, consolidating, where can we grow, what are the opportunities, etc. And a phrase that's often used, and I do try and use it fairly frequent myself, is that data is an asset. It's trying to get people across the institution to understand that data is equally as important as things like our physical infrastructure and student numbers, and should be seen and valued and used in the right way.
My job is really about trying to release that data and get the value from the data and get people to recognise it, and analytics really helped us on the first stages of our journey; I don't think we'd have been in such a good place as we are now if we had not been able to use that tool. I look forward to being able to carry on using it, because I think there's so much more it can deliver.