It was while I was waiting for the bus home last night and skimming though the afternoon’s tweets that I noticed here had been a lot of activity around Lord Mandelson’s announcement of a major modernisation of England’s degree system. Alan Cann’s tweet, in particular, caught my eye:

RT @1994group Not all unis are the same – UK cannot sustain 140 unis & expect them all to succeed at the same level in the same tasks.

What? Was this an official announcement that  140 Universities aren’t sustainable?  Will mine be one to go?  Following links through to the 1994 Group statement which “welcomes Government’s Higher Education Framework” I discovered that this wasn’t a sensationalist headline or a result of a truncated Twitter summary. No, as  the statement said:

Not all universities are the same – the UK cannot sustain 140 full service universities and expect them all to succeed at the same level in the same tasks. Diversity and differentiation of task and mission underpins the excellence of the UK HE system.

Conditioned as I am to reading gloomy predictions of the future in the public sector  I misinterpreted the clause “the UK cannot sustain 140 full service universities“. The statement would probably have been less open to misinterpretation if it had simply said “the UK cannot expect all 140 universities to succeed at the same level in the same tasks. Diversity and differentiation of task and mission underpins the excellence of the UK HE system.”  I would endorse this view.

But if universities aren’t expected to carry out the same range of tasks, what commonalities should there be? After all, if the institutions have little in common, what is the point of sectoral agencies such as HEFCE and JISC? Clearly there are many areas in which the sector benefits from sector-wide funding and policies, many of which are outside the scope of this blog. But I was particularly stuck by the comment that

The 1994 Group has consistently called for more transparent and accurate information around the student experience to be provided. There is a need across the sector for a wider availability of data and information to better inform the decisions of applicants at all levels, and to help HEIs identify problem areas and work to enhance aspects of the student experience“.

Ah! Is this open data we are talking about? Is this about allowing others to access, reuse and interpret our data?  This is an area in the research community, with passionate advocates such as Professor Murray-Rust, have been arguing for opening up our research data. We have also recently seen the benefits to be gained by providing access to library circulation data, encouraged by JISC funding of the MOSAIC project (Making our shared activity information count). And of course we will all be aware of the significant work being carried out across the JISC community in the areas of open access and open educational resources.

And yet, despite such high profile activities in exploiting the benefits of openness we still see arguments being made which appear to stifle further initiatives in this area. Back in 2004 I encouraged IT Services to set a leading role in embracing openness: “Let’s Free IT Support Materials!” – but in revisiting that suggestion recently I see responses such as there is “no culture in UK HE of sharing material like this” and “concern[s] over … ownership“.

But if IT support staff seem reluctant to engage in sharing support materials (and I should add that I am also unaware of similar initiatives in the Library sector) perhaps the drive should come from those working in MIS departments.  After all they will manage the large databases  which could be opened up. And the MOSAIC project has experiences in how data can be anonymised to avoid the understandable concerns regarding privacy and data protection.

Are any institutions opening up access to such data? Although I appreciate that the 1994 Group’s statement that “There is a need across the sector for a wider availability of data and information to better inform the decisions of applicants at all levels” could just be a call for more funding or for better access to data from government agencies (OS maps, perhaps?).  But if you work at one of the 1994 Group institutions (University of Bath, Birkbeck University of London, Durham University, University of East Anglia, University of Essex, University of Exeter, Goldsmiths University of London, Institute of Education University of London, Royal Holloway University of London, Lancaster University, University of Leicester, Loughborough University, Queen Mary University of London, University of Reading, University of St Andrews, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of Surrey, University of Sussex or the University of York) mightn’t this provide an opportunity to initiate discussions about opening up institutional data?