Making the most of big data

Big data is the current buzz word in the higher education sector, but its promises are not going to deliver themselves

By Graham James, VP of Business Intelligence at the software consultancy CACI

Last month, UCAS published its end of cycle report announcing that a record amount of students were accepted into UK higher education (HE) in 2014. For the first time, the numbers surpassed the impressive mark of 500,000, which was described by Mary Curnock Cook, Chief Executive of UCAS, as certainly representing ‘a settling of nerves following the tuition fee rises in England in 2012.’

However, scoring record numbers in 2014 and the greater regulatory freedoms in 2015 mean big challenges for academic institutions – especially if they want to succeed in the kind of market that HE has developed into over the course of the last few years. On the background of these fundamental changes, a buzzing noise can be heard in the industry around big data as the solution to many problems modern universities are facing today. But are big data’s big promises really so easy to drive home?

Let’s be honest: digital governance tools and big data are no real news. Companies in the private sector have been reaping the benefits through efficient data analyses for quite some time already. And the public sector is no stranger to digital innovation, with leading theorists – admittedly, slightly provocatively – announcing already in 2006 that ‘New Public Management is dead – long live Digital Era Governance.’

However, there are still gaps that need to be filled, especially in the HE sector. Universities sit on masses of data about their students and about their past financial performance. No doubt, this data is a large treasure that can be unearthed through the right software solution. But the big promises that come with big data won’t deliver themselves.

Our experience shows that the main challenge for big data solutions in the HE sector is to overcome the divide between economic efficiency and academic excellence. While we are all discussing the exciting opportunities of big data in HE, we must not forget that HE institutions are not the same as manufacturing companies that have to monitor productivity indicators and their train of machines.

While delivering insights into aspects of business performance, the underlying goal of big data technology is to ensure the academic success and general wellbeing of the student body. As always, the devil’s in the details here. You need a system that lets you stay on top of overall student numbers and applications. At the same time, you need to be able to tailor individual courses, lectures and seminars according to what your students really want. Along with this goes the need to monitor your performance – from general indicators to individual module results. And then there is the make-or-break topic of budgets and course costs. Only with the right technology to provide accurate cost and income forecasts can you make informed and strategic decisions with the clearest student focus.

Having worked with over a third of all UK universities on different big data solutions, we can safely say that big data does indeed have the potential to deliver new insights and high efficiency gains. However, we have also seen how HE institutions are different from private sector clients. For you this means that you have to find the right solutions for your needs among the buzzing noise that is currently being produced in the industry around big data.