Block 3 Week 10 Visualising public data

Although I spent some time looking at HESA data sets, I found the organisation and how they enabled the collection and application of this data, more intriguing, particularly around performance indicators.


HESA (Higher Education Statistics Agency) is a membership organisation, set up by the higher education funding councils, higher education providers, and governments in the UK.

HESA: Our Vision (produced using

Interesting to note perhaps that there is mention of stakeholders, people, public, and customers (staff relates to those at HESA), there is no explicit mention of students (these, see below, are identified as customers).

Their website states (my emphasis) that:

HESA (Higher Education Statistics Agency) are the experts in UK higher education data and analysis.


and that:

We provide data and analysis on students to a wide variety of customers, including: Governments, Universities (via the Heidi Plus analytics tool), Academic and commercial researchers, Students and potential students, Policy makers.


Dashboards and visualisation

Heidi Plus, described as “…higher education business intelligence…”, includes ‘Community Dashboards’:

…which have been produced ‘by the sector, for the sector’


and are

…shaped by the HE community – that is, experts and specialists from within HE … develop prototype interactive visualisations which provide interrogable data answers to specific sector questions, for the benefit of their peers…

The ‘HE community’ mentioned here may draw particularly from certain parts of it, (they mention ‘…HE staff from planning, finance, marketing, HR and more, as well as academics…’) which will guide the questions asked and the answers given.

Although it possible to download the data and analyse/visualise it using other software (WONKE publish detailed analysis of HESA data using Tableau), using the in-built visuals is probably seen as an easier option (for occasional use) or alternatively, training in Heidi Plus is offered. Both of the later options would tend to guide the user towards a certain type of visualisation, dictated by the software and the options available (though obviously the data and how it was selected already carries a bias of its own).

UK Performance Indicators (UKPIs)

These are:

…statistics which compare universities and colleges against benchmarks… designed to be objective and consistent measures of every HE providers’ performance.


and cover:

  • widening participation,
  • non-continuation,
  • employment or further study of graduates.

Although it states that:

The UKPIs are not intended to be league tables…


stating this does not prevent ranking happening; in fact, this assists it, and having this statement acknowledges that. It also encourages HE institutions to think of themselves as separate entities, not a sector, encouraging competion rather than coordinated action towards access to and sucess in higher education.

If not for ranking, UKPIs are recommended by HESA for judging the performance of an HE providor against the sector as a whole: this has been reduced to ‘+’ or ‘-‘ for each UKPI. Thus, the performance of a University could be reported by as little as three symbols.

Having UKPIs directs attention towards them, and away from other issues which, for some institutions, may be more important. It can suggest that institutions also are, if not wholly responsible for the outcomes, in control of them, compelling them to direct resource towards an issue that they cannot solve alone if just to avoid looking disinterested.

Widening participation

It could encourage an institution to try to attract a broader range of students to improve its WP score without tacking the larger issue of why their institution/curriculum doesn’t do this, possibly leading to students somewhere where they do not thrive.


If judged for non-continuation, institutions may work to encourage students to stay on a programme to improve figures, not admitting that this is sometimes not always best for the student.

Employment or further study of graduates

Focussing on employment may make institutions direct resources towards certain kinds of course or, within courses, specifically on skills for employability (getting a job) rather than a more general education in their discipline. There may also be a drive to encourage more graduates into post-graduate study, beyond what was thought to be appropriate before.


Although the HESA data is interesting it itself, the settings is arguably more so and perhaps deserves greater study itself.


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