Wednesday, 8 June 2011

HESA and the private providers

Asking a couple of questions about these data for my not-progressing-very-quickly series on private providers has just led to a very interesting phone conversation with a HESA official whom I shall not name.

Firstly I was wondering why some major private providers like Kaplan International and INTO were not included in the HESA data. The answer is quite simple, although it really surprised me: where private providers were deemed to be doing 'preparation' courses for University entry, they were deliberately excluded from the scope of the project.

Secondly a more technical point. I was concerned that there would be double counting of students because many students at private providers are on programmes franchised from UK public providers, and those public providers may consider the students at their partner institutions within the coverage of the HESA Student Record (the standard data set from which performance indicators, NSS and other nationally-published data are derived). This depends on the term of art 'registration' which is defined (should you care) here and here. HESA confirmed my view. If everyone has a clear understanding of what 'registration' means to HESA and HEFCE, then there will be no possibility of double-counting, but in practice there is likely to be a fair amount of double counting, because private providers  probably don't understand 'registration' in this highly technical sense. This is a known issue with HE/FE partners where only one body should report student data, but very often both do, and private providers are very unlikely to understand these issues better than the data professionals in FE colleges.

Why are these fantastically obscure HESA technicalities of any interest? The answer is that the UK Border Agency is obliging all private providers to be regulated by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), which in turn is likely to mean in future that they will all have to return data to HESA. However HESA's idea of who is 'registering' the students is very different from UKBA's idea of who is 'sponsoring' the visa. At one time public institutions thought that they might be regarded as the sponsors of all their private partners' students, and were very concerned about it indeed. They would almost certainly terminate all their partnerships rather than accept the responsibility of sponsorship. These technicalities are therefore likely to lead to an almighty brawl in the not-too-distant future simply because there isn't capacity for everyone to meet their obligations with the precision required to make the data add up.

The 680-odd existing private providers are all going to have to hire somebody with a strong understanding of HESA data requirements in the near future. I doubt there are 680 such people in the whole world, but as I was only just saying that I expect our VCs to love us less in future, it is good to know that someone else will be loving us more. In practice, I suspect that many of the very small providers out there simply won't be able to support the addition to their costs of providing the specialist IT systems and expert staff needed to report data to HESA and will have to go out of business.

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