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11 September 2020

Data-Led Quality Assurance and Enhancement: Introducing our New Research Project


Dr Kate Mori
Quality & Standards Specialist, QAA


This week we launched our new research project, exclusively for QAA Members, which will look at the development and use of data-led quality assurance and enhancement within UK HE providers. The collection and use of data are now widespread in the sector, and good data capability and effective data management are essential for providers in supporting students, meeting regulatory requirements and improving institutional performance. Indeed, with the 2020-21 academic year taking a radical new form for many providers, data will play a leading role in ensuring the continued quality of provision and enabling students to achieve the best possible outcomes.


With data capability of increasing importance, it is useful to understand the range of approaches adopted across the sector for establishing and embedding a data-led quality assurance and enhancement culture, and the systems and processes used. What are the similarities and differences with how data is used to enhance practice, both across the sector as a whole and between provider types? And what are common struggles that would benefit from future guidance? Our research project aims to shed light on these questions.


Data and quality: some context


The UK higher education landscape has changed considerably over the past few years. In England, the Office for Students (OfS) was established under the Higher Education and Research Act 2017. Its Regulatory Framework document describes the OfS adopting a ‘bold, student-focussed risk-based approach’. As part of this risk-based regulatory environment, providers often rely on a wealth of data sources to evidence educational outcomes and demonstrate institutional accountability.


In Scotland, prompted by the growing emphasis on the use of data in quality assurance, the 2017-20 Enhancement Theme: Evidence for Enhancement explored how data and other forms of evidence support enhancement. The work highlighted the key role of data in course and programme development, student engagement, annual monitoring and institutional reviews.


In Wales, as part of Quality Enhancement Review, providers must demonstrate how they use and respond to both qualitative and quantitative data in the management of academic standards, quality and to inform their enhancement activities. This includes data that provides information about the quality of programmes, such as student satisfaction data, as well as progression statistics, achievement and employment information.


Providers now have to deal with data generated from a wealth of sources. At provider level, examples include data from exam boards, module and course level surveys, student records, data from learner analytics’ systems, admissions data, data about staff, data for the Competitions and Markets Authority (CMA), the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) and Transparent Approach to Costing (TRAC) purposes, financial data and estates data. Beyond this we have data that is supplied to providers via Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) workbooks, data linked to Access and Participation Plan (APP) submissions and the graduate outcomes survey.

Building a sector-wide picture

With data forming the backbone of the new regulatory environment, UK HE providers have had to adapt and increase capacity for broader and more complex data collection and analysis, while also ensuring its quality. Discussions with providers have highlighted that the management and processing of data can at times prove overwhelming, with a desire for further guidance and sharing of practice around certain areas. Key themes which emerged from these discussions centre around developing and enhancing a data-led quality culture, data governance and data literacy.


Our research project intends to build a sector-wide picture of how providers are approaching these challenges and how they are overcoming them, with the aim of sharing good practice and developing sector guidance.


The research, conducted in partnership with Shift Insight, aims to:

  • establish how higher education providers develop a whole-institution culture that fosters and promotes data-led quality assurance and enhancement
  • establish how the impact of data-led quality assurance and enhancement is monitored and evaluated.

The survey will look to develop a broad picture of the approaches across UK HE, with questions such as:

  • Do institutions have an overall strategic plan for data usage, and if so, who drives this?
  • How do institutions achieve ‘buy-in’ from academic staff regarding the use of data in quality assurance and enhancement?
  • How do institutions identify and provide access to users for multiple datasets?
  • What staff development is available to enhance data manipulation and analysis skills?

Findings from the research will be utilised at a sector-wide level to share practice and develop guidance. We are hoping to share outcomes of the research at the Data Matters conference planned for January 2021, which is jointly run by QAA, Jisc and HESA. At our 2017 conference, keynote speaker Andy Youell, Strategic Data Advisor and former Director of Data Policy and Governance at HESA, opened his address by saying:


Data, data, everywhere; systems we must sync. Data, data, everywhere; and we’ve no time to think.


As part of the launch of this project, we have created a survey that provides an opportunity to think and consider how data is being used and managed in your institution. We hope all QAA Members will take the time, however briefly, to reflect and respond.