Decoding the data – how to improve diversity and skills in HE

Jan 30, 2024

Professor Andy Noyes, Research Lead for the UK Institute for Technical Skills & Strategy, Professor of Education, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Nottingham shares his views on HE workforce data as the annual data set is released. 

The annual HESA Staff Data 2022/23 has been published, giving us the latest snapshot of the research and teaching workforce within universities.

This important sector analysis is incomplete without a parallel understanding of the technical workforce. Unfortunately, the recent pattern of ‘opting out’ of data submission for technical staff is a problem.

These academic staff data trends are often examined against HESA’s student data to analyse sector growth and challenges, but without the technical workforce analysis the picture is incomplete.

For example, our previous research as part of the Research England funded TALENT programme highlighted the significant role of technicians as teachers. Over four-fifths (81%) of respondents to a national survey of technical staff working in UK universities indicated their role did involve teaching or supporting the learning of HE students.

The issue with opting out

This is the third year in which UK and Northern Ireland HE providers can exclude non-academic staff data, a decision that can we think has serious implications. 87 providers chose to opt out of the non-academic staff data submission within 2021/22, which is more than 30% of universities.

Yet even for those that do submit this data, the challenge of generating good data to better understand the role of the technical workforce within the sector is problematic.

Technical staff play a critical role in research and innovation as well as teaching and education, so their partial invisibility in this process is unhelpful. An incomplete picture of the technical workforce limits our understanding of the sector as a whole, in addition to national and regional challenges in technical workforce development.

Moving the (data) goalposts

The landscape of data collection for technical staff has undergone significant changes.

Previously, HESA collected data on technical communities much like academic staff, often grouping technical staff with all other ‘non-academic staff.’ Though flawed, this approach provided the best available evidence base on the technical workforce in UK higher education.

HESA made non-academic staff reporting optional from 2019/20 “to distinguish between eligible and ineligible staff for the REF.”

However, the proposed changes to REF 2029 criteria that place greater emphasis on people, culture, and environment, mean that this HESA data collection process needs to become comprehensive and consistent; we need a full picture of the technical workforce.

Mapping the landscape

Data published in the TALENT Commission report (February 2022) provides the fullest picture of higher education and research technicians. One of the report’s recommendations calls for HE providers to submit data on their technical workforce to enable the sector to effectively map the landscape.

The report also calls for HESA and its regulators to ensure data is mandated, collected and made available for technical staff roles. In doing so it also highlights the challenges around data submission, given the limited definitions of what a ‘technician’ and the broad range of job titles, roles, responsibilities, discipline areas, job families, and sectors.

Currently, there are major inconsistencies in the way that universities and research institutes define the role of the estimated 30,000-50,000 technical professionals in the UK.

TALENT’s research found a significant proportion of technicians are classed as ‘support staff’. Yet these technicians are playing a vital role in teaching and educating students, research, knowledge exchange and innovation UK-wide.

Achieving net zero, finding solutions for future food sources and innovating in health care requires the specialist skills of technical professionals and building technical capability and capacity is fundamental.

There are ambitions for the UK to be a “Science and Technology Superpower”. To achieve this, we need to understand, invest and develop the key technical skills and careers required to drive emerging and critical technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, quantum and engineering biology.

Without further insights into the technical skills required to develop, deliver and innovate these technologies, and a better understanding of what this means for the future technical workforce, superpower ambitions will fail to succeed.

Transforming the landscape

The recently formed UK Institute for Technical Skills & Strategy (established on 1 August 2023) has been funded by Research England. The Institute’s Centre for Research & Policy aims to build on TALENT’s research and its landmark commission report and will develop greater knowledge on the changing technical workforce.

Our dedicated research team will publish new insights. They will map the technical workforce to better understand technical roles, skills, careers, education, training and research culture to help transform the landscape.

The Centre for Policy and Research will support the first two of the Institute’s four strategic pillars: Insight, Influence, Innovation and Integration.

Along with others in our sector, we are in conversation with HESA to consider how best to define the roles of technical staff and improve data collections to enable greater consistency across the sector.

Until there is a uniform approach to HESA staff data collection for staff, HESA records for 2019/20 onwards should be viewed with a critical eye.

This article was initially published by WonkHE