Where Can I Find Historical Numbers of Students in HE? From the House of Commons Library…


[Had a link to last year’s numbers release and didn’t notice (that’ll teach me to type whilst on the phone! And that’s why it’s much safer sticking to F1 data… it doesn’t really matter if I get that wrong ;-)]

UCAS released their latest figures for university applications for 2013 today UK Application rates by country, sex, age and background (2013 Cycle, January deadline), along with data files for data charted in the report. Details of the actual number of applicants is also available: 2013 cycle applicant figures – January deadline.

Relates to 2012: (Data reported for applications considered on time for 15 January deadline). Headlines report that “Total applicant numbers at this stage of the cycle are 7.4% lower than at the same point in 2011”, with 18 year old England domiciled applicants down 4.1% and the largest drop in terms of actual numbers year on year coming the the age 19 year group (down over 17,000). The percentages are based on differences between the actual number of applicants year on year.

[Other parts of this post are also thrown off course now, eg after spotting in UCAS reports 3.5% increase in applications to higher education that “Application rates, which take population changes into account, show that the proportion of English 18 year olds applying in 2013 has increased by one percentage point. The application rates of 18 year olds across the UK are at, or near, their highest recorded levels”. Rates for last year were also released last year. I do wonder a couple of things though – why two separate releases, rates and actual numbers, (that can catch the casual user unaware… ahem… ;-) And why doesn’t there appear to be much consideration of the possible effect of demographic changes (population by age) on actual numbers applying, “all other things being equal”…?]

I wondered whether demographics might account for some of the change, or even work against it, assuming that the actual percentage of individuals within a year group that applied to university was consistent. [It turns out that information about population application rates was also release.] A quick peek at the ONS stats reported the following counts for age by single year in the 2011 Census for England as follows (2011 Census: QS103EW Age by single year, local authorities in England and Wales (Excel sheet 1045Kb) <- don't ask how I found that on the ONS website. I have no idea and could not recreate the steps… [Via @paulbradshaw, 2011 Census, Population and Household Estimates for England and Wales, Table P02 2011 Census: Usual resident population by single year of age and sex, England, which is differently identified to the data I found… I wonder if the numbers are different too?!]):

Year Count
17 665,447
18 674,980
19 700,335
20 727,389
21 711,470
22 715,130
23 728,435
24 712,897

(A 10,000 change on 700,000 is about 1.4% of the 700,000.) If a fixed percentage of 18 year olds from England are applying to university each year (30%, say), then demographic factors could account for some of the change in actual numbers of applicants.

One of the things that surprised me slightly about the mechanics of the UCAS data release was that they didn’t make downloadable files containing the data available (although it is easily scraped from the data tables on the announcement page; an additional, slightly more expansive breakdown of one dataset – applications by subset – is provided though). I was surprised because the precursor announcement, December’s End of Cycle report 2012 which announced the publication of a figure filled PDF based report, also included a set of datafiles containing raw data used to generate the figures in the report, so it seems as if this is now UCAS’ standard way of releasing data referred to in reports? (See also: Press Releases and Convenient Report Publication Formats for Data Journalists where I introduce the notion of “view source for data” and describe a few other examples of how public bodies have released data in support of formal reports.)

If you wanted to try to make sense of the university application numbers, and try to get a feel for what sort of effect policy changes might have had on university applications and uptake over the years, you’d probably want to look at some longitudinal data.

One of the criticisms raised about the ONS website by the Public Administration Committee over its website as part of an inquiry on Communicating and publishing statistics (see also the session the day before) related to the availability of longitudinal datasets. One dataset that I tried to looked for related to the number of students in Higher Education over the last 40 years. My first guess at the natural home for this on the ONS site was Higher Education Enrolments, and Qualifications Obtained, at Higher Education Institutions in the UK, but this only appears to go back to 2006.

I recalled struggling to find historical workforce data on the ONS site before now, but recall finding deeper historical data on nomis, the ONS official labour market stats site – but that doesn’t really do education…

However, I did manage to turn up a research briefing from the House of Commons Library (this was also referred to by Michael Blastland in his submission to the Public Affairs Committee about the ONS, I think?): Education: Historical statistics – Commons Library Standard Note. Unfortunately, the actual data referred to in that note is not available as a dataset.

(As an aside, whilst looking around the parliament site to see what else might be there, I came across pages for searching through research briefings as well papers deposited to the House libraries (for example, in response to official questions). The deposited papers include a whole range of document types, including spreadsheets, so FWIW, I started building a scraper to try to index them: scraperwiki: Parliamentary deposited papers.)

So.. the data’s out, and also in a form where it can be played with. So, has anyone played with it?! I also wonder if there’s historical data on the UCAS website detailing application numbers going further back than 2006, ideally as a nicely packaged longitudinal dataset…?

Immediate Impressions on JISC’s “Course Data: Making the most of Course Information” Funding Call

Notes on the JISC Grant Funding Call 8/11: “Course Data: Making the most of Course Information” Capital Programme – Call for Letters of Commitment

This post builds on quick commentaries around other reports in the area of Higher Education course data: Immediate Thoughts on the “Provision of information about higher education” and Getting Access to University Course Code Data (or not… (yet…))). It doesn’t necessarily represent my own opinions, let alone those of my employer.

1. The Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) and the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) invite English Universities and FE colleges (teaching over 400 HE FTEs) to become involved in a new programme of work which will help prepare the sector for increasing demands on course data.

3. Funding is available for projects starting from Monday 12 September 2011 for an initial period of approximately three months. Projects selected to go forward into Stage 2 will continue for an additional 12 to 15 months. All projects must be complete by 29 March 2013.

So how does this fit with the timeline for HEFCE Key Information Set (KIS) development if the called for work is relevant to that? (Note: HEFCE makes available much of the monies disbursed by JISC, and HEFCE is managing the KIS work directly.)

As soon as possible and not later than the end of September 2011 Technical guidance published by HEFCE
January to March 2012 Submission system open for KISs to be published in September 2012: Institutions submit their data to
June to early July 2012 2012 NSS and DLHE data available to HEFCE
July to August 2012 HEFCE merges data submitted by institutions with 2012 NSS and DLHE data. Institutions quality check and sign off their final
September 2012 KISs available for institutions to upload. All KISs to be accessible via institutional web-sites by the end of the month

[HEFCE: Provision of information about higher education]

So given the timings, the JISC second phase work looks as if it is supporting processes relating to, and publication of, different sorts of data to the KIS data, although phase 1 work may be relevant to KIS releases?

10. There are 3 main drivers for making it easier for people to find and compare courses:
– prospective fee paying students want to know more about the academic experience a course will provide and be able to compare this with other courses;
– better informed students are more likely to choose a course that they will complete, and be more motivated to achieve better results;
– increased scrutiny by quality assurance agencies and the Government’s requirement for transparency of publicly funded bodies.

11. JISC have made it easier for prospective students to decide which course to study by creating an internationally recognised data standard for course information, known as XCRI-CAP which is conformant with the new European standard for Advertising Learning Opportunities. This will make transferring and advertising information about courses between institutions and organisations more efficient and effective. Placing this data at a consistent COOL URI makes it easier to find.

So there are two end-user groups in mind for the course related information: prospective students, and the scrutineers. XCRI-CAP relates to the publication of information describing at a high level the subject content of a course, rather than the sorts of “metadata” around courses that the KIS will provide. If we were building a course comparison website, the XCRI-CAP data might provide course descriptions relating to a course, whereas the KIS data would provide student satisfaction ratings, teaching hours, assessment strategies, graduate employment rates and salaries. Pricing related information might be common to both sets?

KIS example

KIS example 2
Example of what the KIS display might look like.

Within the university website, developers will be required to identify which course a page relates to, and then call in the appropriate KIS widget from HEFCE or its agent, presumably by passing parameters relating to: institution identifier; course identifier.

In order to display both XCRI-CAP style data and KIS data on the same third party site web page, the third party will need to be able to identify the course identifier and the university identifier. It will also need a way of identifying which course codes are offered by each institution. In order to satisfy requests from potential applicants searching for a particular topic anywhere in the country*, the third party would ideally have access to an index (or at least a comprehensive list either of courses for each institution, or of institutions by course) that allows it to identify and return the set of (institution, course) pairs for which the course satisifes the search term. (Alternatively, for every request, the third party could query every university separately for related courses, aggregate these responses, and then annotate each result with a link to the corresponding KIS information, or its widget.) If the aggregator was to offer a service whereby potential applicants could rank each result according to one or more KIS data elements, it would need to index associate the KIS data relating to each of the courses identified by the (institution, course) pairs with the corresponding pair, and then use this aggregated data set to present the result to the end user. Again, this could be achieved my making separate requests to the KIS information server, once for each (institution, course) pair; or it could draw on its own index of this data if the information was openly licensed.

* when thinking about course selection, I often have four scenarios in mind: a) I know what course I want to do and where I want to do it; b) I know where I want to go but donlt know what course to do; c) I know what course I want to do, but know where to do it; d) I don’t know what course to do or where to do it…

Just by the by, I wonder if the intention of the HEFCE technical working group is to come up with a structured machine readable standard for communicating the KIS information via the KIS widget? That is, will content represented via the KIS widget be marked up in semantic form, or will semantics at the data representation level have to be reverse engineered from the presentation of the information? Where the KIS renders graphical elements, will the charts be generated directly from data transported to the widget, or will the provision simply be flat image files? (Charts displayed in widgets can come in three flavours: 1) as a flat image file with an arbitrary URL (e.g. kisDataImage4.png) (note that data underlying the graph may be described in surrounding metadata, such as within img attribute tags; 2) as an image file generated from data contained within the URL (e.g. as in the mechanism used by the Google Charts API); 3) through the enhancement of data contained within the page (for example, in a Javascript data scructure or an HTML table).

The KIS data only partially overlaps with the XCRI-CAP data, so I wonder: to what extent will it be possible to JOIN the two data sets (that is, how will we be able to link XCRI-CAP and KIS data? Via HEI+coursecode keys, presumably?)

12. The proposed programme will support the sector to prepare for the increasing demand for course information, and increase the availability of high-quality, accurate information about part-time, online and distance learning opportunities offered by UK HEIs by:

– funding institutions to make the process and technical innovations necessary to release a structured, machine-readable feed of their course-related information, and;
– creating a proof-of-concept aggregator and discovery service to bring together this course information and enable prospective students to search it.

So – what I think the JISC are suggesting is that they are looking to fund work on the “wider information set” of information around courses? That JISC are also looking to create a “proof-of-concept aggregator and discovery service to bring together this course information and enable prospective students to search it” sounds interesting. I wonder how this would sit in the context of:

  1. UCAS (which currently concentrates course listings as a basis for a single point of application for entry (how will entry work for the private universities? Cf. also the OU, which has only just started to make use of the UCAS entry route, and which also supports a significant direct entry route onto modules?)
  2. third party services such as ???Hotcourses
  3. custom search engines such as CourseDetective, which search over online course prospectuses (and which cost approx. 2 volunteered FTE days to put together at a hackday…;-)

It’s also worth bearing in mind that my TSO OpenUp competition entry also suggested the opening up of course code scaffolding data so that third parties could start to create aggregated and enriched datasets around courses, as well as building services on top of that data that would potentially be revenue generating and commercially sustainable…

Just on the topic of “wider information sets”, here’s what the HEFCE KIS consultation report had to say on the matter:

The wider information set
32. Higher education providers already publish a wide range of information about their institution and the courses they deliver. The information published has been considered by QAA in the context of institutional audit (for publicly funded higher education institutions and those privately funded providers that subscribe to QAA) or of Integrated Quality and Enhancement Review (for further education colleges (FECs) offering HE courses) and is subject to a ‘comment’ in that context. The consultation proposed that institutions should make this information more public-facing, noting that published information would, in due course, be subject to a judgement in QAA review processes.

33. It was proposed that this wider information set has two purposes: to provide information about higher education to a wide variety of audiences including:
prospective and current students; students’ parents and advisers; employers; the media; and the institution itself to form part of the evidence used in QAA audit and review.

34. The required information set was presented in the consultation document as a minimum requirement, with institutions continuing to publish as much other information as they wished. Institutions were asked to consider whether any of the information could be presented in more accessible ways.

Information about aspects of course/awards (not available in the KIS):

Information to be provided Level of information Availability
prospectuses, programme guides, module descriptors or similar programme specifications;
results of internal student surveys
links with employers – where employers have input into a course or programme (this could be quite a high-level statement)
partnership agreements, links with awarding bodies/delivery partners.
Course/programme level All apart from results of internal surveys to be publicly available
Results of internal surveys should be available internally

[HEFCE: Provision of information about higher education]

If there is such pent-up demand for aggregated course discovery services, then they should also be able to run as commercial services? One thing that I would argue currently limits innovation in this area is access to a comprehensive qualifcation catologue across the UK. UCAS do have this data, and they do sell it. But I want to play with it and see if I can build a service round it, rather than deciding to quit my job, raise finance, buy the data from UCAS and then see if I can make a go of building a commercial service around the data. UCAS would still benefit from traffic driven to the UCAS site for couse registrations. (But then, if aggregators were also aggregating information about courses in the private sector that supported direct entry and did not require central applications and clearing, aggregators might also start recommending courses outside the scope of UCAS…? Hmmm… Becuase the private universities would probably provide a commercial incentive to drive traffic to them in the form of affiliate fees based on registrations resulting from referrals… Hmmm… This is all starting to put me in mind of things like FOTA, Formula One and the FIA…!)

Another route to a comprehensive course catalogue is through indexing catalogue feeds (akin to website sitemap feeds that detail all the pages on a website to make it easy for search engines to index them) published directly by the universities, such as XCRI-CAP feeds…

13. The availability of useable course data feeds, and the demonstration of the proof-of-concept aggregator, is intended to provide a catalyst to the feeds being used within existing aggregators, catalogues or information, advice and guidance services, or to form the basis of new services.

I’m not sure an incentive is required.. just open access to the data, free in the first instance. (And if companies do start to make money from it, then license fees can kick in. I don’t think people would have a problem with that…)

15. Between September 2011 and March 2013, JISC intends to fund projects that help institutions review and adapt their internal processes to permit easier access to their course data to meet the needs of various stakeholders. As a minimum, and to provide a clear focus for this overarching activity, the programme will concentrate on the implementation of an XCRI-CAP standard system-generated feed. The programme will be staged to ensure maximum benefit is achieved.

If this data is already exposed via online course prospectuses, a developer with data scraper in hand could probably get a large chunk of this data anyway over the next three to six months. (The CourseDetective CSE definition file already provides a basis for anyone wanting to spider university course catalogues… Hmmm… maybe that’s a good reason for me to get to grips with Lucene…? Ideally, course prospectuses would also produce a sitemap (or XCRI) feed providing URLs for all the course pages currently published via the online prospectus to make it easy for third parties to index, or harvest, this data. The provision of semantic markup in a page, whether through RDFa, microformats, microdata or metadata would also simplify the sctaping (i.e. machibe parseability) of the course pages. At the very least, using template based, sensibly structured presentation markup that enforces markup conventions that suggest de facto semantics makes pages reliably scrapeable and provides one way of supporting the harvesting of data (if license conditions allow…)) Because, of course, a major why potentially commercial services don’t just scrape the data to build course comparison sites relates to the licensing/copyright restrictions that may exist, deliberately or by default, over the university prospectus data that is published online… (Not everyone’s a pirate;-)

16. In Stage 1, institutions will review the maturity of their management of course data using the XCRI Self Assessment Framework. This could cover the full course data life cycle, but must include a particular focus on prospectus and course advertising information. Based on the outcomes of this review, institutions will produce an implementation plan for how they will improve processes to, as a minimum, create a system-generated course advertising feed in a XCRI CAP 1.2 format with a COOL URI.

Ah, ha….

So I wonder, would JISC indemnify a third party looking to scrape, aggregate, and republish this data in a standard form via an open API and a permissive license, against actions taken against them by UCAS and the universities for breach of copyright?! I also wonder whether JISC will be providing guidance about what license conditions they expect XCRI-CAP data to be published under? Or is that out of scope?

19. The anticipated outcomes from this programme of work are:
– There will be increased usage of appropriate technology to streamline course data processes leading to:
— More standardised, and therefore comparable, course information in a consistent location making discovery easier.
— Improved quality and therefore more efficient and effective course data.
— Increased ease in finding and comparing courses, especially types of courses that are currently hard to find, such as ones delivered by distance learning.

– Institutions are able to make appropriate and informed decisions about their processes for managing course-related data, leading to a reduced administrative data burden, cost-effective working, and better business intelligence.

Ah… this is actually different to getting the data out there, then, in a way that third parties can use it? It’s more about tweaking systems and processes inside the institution to support the provisioning of data in ways that make it more accessible to third party aggregators? The course aggregator is then a red herring – it’s just there to provide a reference/candidate client/consumer against which the released data can be targeted.

25. There will be a support and synthesis project that will be working with projects from the start of the programme to help them shape their implementation plans in Stage 1 and other outputs in Stage 2 that are of most use to the sector. Projects are expected to engage with the support and synthesis project and to be proactive in sharing outputs throughout the project. This information will be synthesised and shared with the sector; where that information is sensitive, it will be shared in an aggregated, anonymised form.

A “support and synthesis project” within JISC presumably, (i.e. run by the usual suspects)? Rather than sponsoring and indemnifying the open data community on the one hand, or encouraging potential startups on the other, to start building user facing (potential student) services, along with the necessary business model that will make them sustainable, and maybe even profitable?

26. Funding is provided to enable institutions to carry out project work, but also to release key staff to prepare for, take part in and follow up on these programme-level activities. Projects should allow at least 5 person-days in Stage 1 and 10 person-days in Stage 2.

Such is the price of funding HE based developer activities. 5 days project work: £10k. 10 days project work: £40k-80k. So now you know…

Getting Access to University Course Code Data (or not… (yet…))

A couple of weeks or so ago, having picked up the TSO OpenUp competition prize for suggesting that it would be a Good Thing for UCAS/university course code data to be made available, I had a meeting with the TSO folk to chat over “what next?” The meeting was an upbeat one with a plan to get started as soon as possible with a scrape of the the UCAS website… so what’s happened since…?

First up – a reading of the UCAS website Terms and Conditions suggests that scraping is a no-no…

6. Intellectual property rights
e. Copying, distributing or any use of the material contained on the website for any commercial purpose is prohibited.
f. You may not create a database by systematically downloading substantial parts of the website

(In the finest traditions of the web, you aren’t allowed to deep link into the site without permission either: 6.c inks to the website are not permitted, other than links to the homepage for your personal use, except with our prior written permission. Links to the website from within a frameset definition are not permitted except with our prior written permission.)

So, err, I guess my link to the terms and conditions breaks those terms and conditions? Oops…;-) Should I be sending them something like this do you think?

Dear enquiries@ucas.ac.uk,
As per your terms and conditions, (paragraph 6 c) please may I publish a link to your terms and conditions web page [ http://www.ucas.com/terms_and_conditions ] in a blog post I am writing that, in part, refers to your terms and conditions?

As a fallback, I put a couple of trial balloon FOI requests in to a couple of universities asking for the course names and UCAS course codes for courses offered in 2010/11, along with the search keywords associated with each course (doh! I did it again, deep linking into the UCAS site…)

PS Please may I also link to the page describing course search keywords [ http://www.ucas.com/he_staff/courses/coursesearchkeywords ] ?

The first request went to the University of Southampton, in part because I knew that they already publish chunks of the data (as data) as part of their #opensoton Open Data initiative. (This probably means I was abusing the FOI system, but a point maybe needed to be made…?!;-) The second request was put in to the University of Bristol.

The requests were of the form:

I would be grateful if you could send me in spreadsheet, machine readable electronic form or plain text a copy of the course codes, course titles and search keywords for each course as submitted to UCAS for the 2010-2011 (October 2010) student entry.

If possible, would you also provide HESA subject category codes associated with each course.

So how did I get on?

Bristol’s response was as follows:

On discussion with our Admissions and Student Information teams, it appears that the University does not actually hold this data – it is held on a UCAS database. UCAS are not currently subject to the Freedom of Information Act (they will be in due course) but it may be worth talking to them directly to see if they are willing to assist.

And Southampton’s FOI response?

Course codes and titles may be found here: http://www.soton.ac.uk/corporateservices/foi/request-66210-6124d691.pdf Keywords were not held by the University – you should inquire with UCAS (http://www.ucas.com). HESA subject category codes may be found here: http://www.hesa.ac.uk/index.php/content/view/1806/296/

So what did I learn?

  1. I don’t seem to have made it clear enough to Southampton that I wanted the the 2-tuple (course code, HESA code) for each course. So how should I have asked for that data (the response pointed me to the list of all HESA codes. What I wanted was, for each course code, the course code/HESA code pair).
  2. Generalising from an example of one;-), there seems to be a disconnect between FOI and open data branches of organisations. In my ideal world, the FOI person (an advocate for the person making the request) would also be on good terms with the Open Data team in the organisation, if not a data wrangler themselves. For data requests, the FOI person would make sure the data is released as open data as part of the process of fulfilling the request and then refer the person making the request to the open data site (see also: Open Data Processes – Taps, Query Paths/Audit Trails and Round Tripping). Southampton have part of this process already – the course data is in a PDF on the their site and I was referred to it. (Note that the PDF is not just any PDF – have a look at it! – rather than the spreadsheet, machine readable electronic form or plain text I requested, even though @cgutteridge had posted a link to the SPARQL opendata query for the course code/UCAS code information I’d requested as a reply to my FOI request on the WhatDoTheyKnow site.)
  3. Universities don’t necessarily have any record of the search keywords they associate with the courses they post on UCAS. The UCAS website suggests that (doh!) “[r]ecent analysis of unique IP address use of the UCAS Course Search indicates that the subject search is by far the most popular of the 3 search options currently available”, such that “[w]hen an applicant uses our Course Search facility to search for available courses, they can choose a keyword by which to search, known as the ‘subject search’.” Which is to say, universities have no local record of the terms they use to describe courses that are the the primary way of discovering their courses on UCAS? Blimey… (I wonder how much universities spend on Google AdWords for advertising particular courses on their own course prospectus websites and how they go about selecting those terms?)
  4. Asking for a machine readable “data as data” response has no teeth at the current time. I don’t know if the Protection of Freedoms bill clause that “extends Freedom of Information rights by requiring datasets to be available in a re-usable format” will change this? It seems like it might?

    (a) an applicant makes a request for information to a public authority in respect of information that is, or forms part of, a dataset held by the public authority, and
    (b) on making the request for information, the applicant expresses a preference for communication by means of the provision to the applicant of a copy of the information in electronic form, the public authority must, so far as reasonably practicable, provide the information to the applicant in an electronic form which is capable of re-use.

  5. So what next? UCAS is a charity that appears to be operated by, for, and on behalf of UK Higher Education (e.g. UCAS Directors’ Report and Accounts 2009). Whilst not FOIable yet, it looked set to become FOIable from October 2011 (Ministry of Justice: Greater transparency in Freedom of Information), though I haven’t been able to find the SI and commencement date that enact this…?). IF it does become FOIable, we may be able to get the data out that way (although memories of the battle between open data advocates and the Ordnance Survey come to mind…) Hopefully, though, we’ll be able to get the data open by more amicable means before then…:-)

    PS a couple of other things that I’ve been dipping into relating to this project. Firstly, the UCAS Business Plan 2009-2012 (doh!):

    PPS Please may I also link to your Corporate Business Plan 2009-2012 [ http://www.ucas.com/documents/corporate/corpbusplan09-12.pdf ]

    Secondly, the Cabinet Office’s “Better Choices: Better Deals” strategy document [PDF], which as well as its “MyData” right to personal data initiative, also encourages business to put their information (and data…) to work. Whether or not you agree that more information may help to make for better choices from potential students, or that comparison sites have a role to play in this, the UK government appears to believe it and looks set to support the development of businesses operating in this area. For example:

    Effective consumer choices are also important in the public sector – such as decisions about what and where to study.
    However, unlike in private markets, public services are generally:
    ● Free at the point of delivery, so prices do not give us clues about quality or popularity.
    ● Not motivated by profits, so there is little incentive to highlight differences and encourage switching.
    ● Supplied under a universal service obligation, such that they serve a particularly broad range of users, from the very informed to the highly vulnerable.
    In the same way that comparison and feedback sites have developed for private markets, some choice-tools have already emerged for public services. For example, parents and prospective students can use league tables to compare school and university performance, while patients can access websites comparing waiting times for treatments across different healthcare providers, and feedback from fellow consumers about the performance of a local GP practice. Their role is likely to become more important in future as public service markets are opened up and there is scope for further choice-tools to be developed [Better Choices: Better Deals, p. 32]

    If you’re looking to put a bid or business plan together based on using public data as a basis for comparison services, the Better Choices document has more than a few quotable sections;-)

    [Related: Course Detective metasearch/custom search across UK University prospectus websites]

TSO OpenUP Competition – Opening Up UCAS Data

Here’s the presentation I gave to the judging panel at the TSO OpenUp competition final yesterday. As ever, it doesn’t make sense with[out] (doh!) me talking, though I did add some notes in to the Powerpoint deck: Opening up UCAS Course Code Data

(I had hoped Slideshare would be able to use the notes as a transcript, bit it doesn’t seem to do that, and I can’t see how to cut and paste the notes in by hand?:-(

A quick summary:

The “Big Idea” behind my entry to the TSO competition was a simple one – make UCAS course data (course code, title and institution) avaliable as data. By opening up the data we make it possible for third parties to construct services and applications based around complete data skeleton of all the courses offered for undergraduate entry through clearing in a particular year across UK higher education.
The data acts as scaffolding that can be used to develop consumer facing applications across HE (e.g. improved course choice applications) as well as support internal “vertical” activities within HEIs that may also be transferable across HEIs.
Primary value is generated from taking the course code scaffolding and annotating it with related data. Access to this dataset may be sold on in a B2B context via data platform services. Consumer facing applications with their own revenue streams may also be built on top of the data platform.
This idea makes data available that can potentially disrupt the currently discovery model for course choice and selection (but in its current form, not in university application or enrollment), in Higher Education in the UK.

Here are the notes I doodled to myself in preparation for the pitch. Now the idea has been picked up, it will need tightening up and may change significantly! ;-) Which is to say – in this form, it is just my original personal opinion on the idea, and all ‘facts’ need checking…

  1. I thought the competition was as much about opening up the data as anything… So the original idea was simply that it would be really handy to have machine readable access to course code and course name information for UK HE courses from UCAS – which is presumably the closest thing we have to a national catalogue of higher education courses.

    But when selected to pitch the idea, it became clear that an application or two were also required, or at least some good business reasons for opening up this data…

    So here we go…

  2. UCAS is the clearing house for applying to university in the UK. It maintains a comprehensive directory of HE courses available in the UK.

    Postgraduate students and Open University students do not go through UCAS. Other direct entry routes to higher education courses may also be available.

    According to UCAS, in 2010, there were 697,351 applicants with 487,329 acceptances, compared with 639,860 applications and 481,854 acceptances in 2009. [ Slightly different figures in end of cycle report 2009/10? ]

    For convenience, hold in mind the thought that course codes could be to course marketing, what postcodes are for geo related applications… They provide a natural identifier that other things can be associated with.

    Associated with each degree course is a course code. UCAS course codes are also associated with JACS codes – Joint Academic Coding System identifiers – that relate to particular topics of study. “The UCAS course codes have no meaning other than “this course is offered by this institution for this application cycle”.” link]

    “UCAS course code is 4 character reference which can be any combination of letters and numbers.

    Each course is also assigned up to three JACS (Joint Academic Coding System) codes in order to classify the course for *J purposes. The JACS system was introduced for 2002 entry, and replaced UCAS Standard Classification of Academic Subjects (SCAS). Each JACS code consists of a single letter followed by 3 numbers. JACS is divided into subject areas, with a related initial letter for each. JACS codes are allocated to courses for the *J return.

    The JACS system is used by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), and is the result of a joint UCAS-HESA subject code harmonization project.

    JACS is also used by UK institutions to identify the subject matter of programmes and modules. These institutions include the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS), the Home Office and the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE).”

    Keywords: up to 10 keywords per course are allocated to each course from a restricted list of just over 4,500 valid keywords.
    “Main keyword: This is generally a broad subject category, usually expressed as a single word, for example ‘Business’.
    Suggested keyword (SUG): Where a search on a main keyword identifies more than 200 courses, the Course Search user is prompted to select from a set of secondary keywords or phrases. These are the more specific ‘Suggested keywords’ attached to the courses identified. For example, ‘Business Administration’ is one of a range of ‘Suggested keywords’ which could be attached to a Business course (there are more than 60 others to choose from). A course in Business Administration would typically have this as the ‘Suggested keyword’, with ‘Business’ as the main keyword.
    However, if a course only has a ‘Suggested keyword’ and not a related ‘Main keyword’, the course will not be displayed in any search under the ‘Main keyword’ alone.

    Single subject: Main keywords can be ticked as ‘Single subject’. This means that the course will be displayed by a keyword search on the subject, when the user chooses the ‘single subject’ option below. You may have a maximum of two keywords indicated as single subjects per course.”

    “Between January and March 2010, approximately 600,000 unique IP addresses access the UCAS course code search function. During the same time period, almost 5 million unique IP addresses accessed the UCAS subject search function.” [link]

    “New courses from 2012 will be given UCAS codes that should not be used for subject classification purposes. However, all courses will still be assigned up to three individual JACS3 codes based on the subject content of the course.

    An analysis of unique IP address activity on the UCAS Course Search has shown that very few searches are conducted using the course code, compared to the subject search function. UCAS Courses Data Team will be working to improve the subject search and course keywords over the coming year to enable potential applicants to accurately find suitable courses.” [link]

    Course code identifiers have an important role to play within a university administrations, for example in marshalling resources around a course, although they are not used by students. (On the other hand, students may have a familiarity with module codes.) Course codes identify courses that are the subject of quality assessment by the QAA. To a certain extent, a complete catalogue of course codes allows third parties to organise offerings based around UK higher education degrees in a comprehensive way and link in to the UCAS application procedure.

  3. If released as open data, and particularly as Linked Open Data, the course data can be used to support:
    – the release of horizontal data across the UK HE sector by HEIs, such as course catalogue information;
    – vertical scaffolding within an institution for elaboration by module codes, which in turn may be associated with module descriptions, reading lists, educational resources, etc.
    – the development across HE of services supporting student choice – for example “compare the uni” type services
  4. At the moment the data is siloed inside UCAS behind a search engine with unfriendly session based URLs and a poor results UI. Whilst it is possible to scrape or crowd-source course code information, such ad hoc collection mechanisms run the danger of being far from complete, which means that bias may be introduced into the collection as a side effect of the collection method.
  5. Making the data available via an API or Linked data store makes it easier for third parties to build course related services of whatever flavour – course comparison sites, badging services, resource recommendation services. The availability of the data also makes it easier for developers within an intsitution to develop services around course codes that might be directly transferable to, or scaleable across, other institutions.
  6. What happens if the API becomes writeable? An appropriately designed data store, and corresponding ingest routes, might encourage HEIs to start releasing the course data themselves in a more structured way.

    XCRI is JISC’s preferred way of doing this, and I think there has been some lobbying of HEFCE from various JISC projects, but I’m not sure how successful it’s been?

  7. Ultimately, we might be able to aggregate data from locally maintained local data stores. Course marketing becomes a feature of the Linked Data cloud.

    Also context of data burden on HEIs, reporting to Professional, Statutory and Regulatory Bodies – PSURBS.

    Reconciliation with HESA Institution and campus identifiers, as well as the JISCMU API and Guardian Datablog Rosetta Stone spreadsheet

    By hosting course code data, and using it as scaffolding within a Linked Data cloud around HE courses, a valuable platform service can be made available to HEIs as well as commercial operations designed to support student choice when it comes to selecting an appropriate course and university.

  8. Several recent JISC project have started to explore the release of course related activity data on the one hand, and Linked Data approaches to enterprise wide data management on the other. What is currently lacking is national data-centric view over all HEI course offerings. UCAS has that data.

    Opening up the data facilitates rapid innovation projects within HEIs, and makes it possible for innovators within an HEI to make progress on projects that span across course offerings even if they don’t have easy access to that data from their own institution.

  9. Consumer services are also a possibility. As HEIs become more businesslike, treating students as customers, and paying customers at that, we might expect to see the appearance of university course comparison sites.

    CompareTheUni has had a holding page up for months – but will it ever launch? Uni&Books crowd sources module codes and associated reading links. Talis Aspire is a commercial reading list system that associates resources with module codes.

  10. Last year, I pulled together a few separate published datasets and through them into Google Fusion Tables, then plotted the results. The idea was that you could chart research ratings against student satisfaction, or drop out rates against the academic pay. [link ]

    Guardian datablog picked up the post, and I still get traffic from there on a daily basis… [link ]

  11. The JISC MOSAIC Library data challenge saw Huddersfield University open up book loans data associated with course codes – so you could map between courses and books, and vice versa (“People who studied this course borrowed this book”, “this book was referred to by students on this course”)

    One demonstrator I built used a bookmarklet to annotate UCAS course pages with a link to a resource page showing what books had been borrowed by students on that course at Huddersfiled University. [Link ]

  12. Enter something like compare the uni, but data driven, and providing aggregated views over data from universities and courses.
  13. To set the scene, the site needs to be designed with a user in mind. I see a 16-17 year old, sloughing on the sofa, TV on with the most partial of attention being paid to it, laptop or tablet to hand and the main focus of attention. Facebook chat and a browser are grabbing attention on screen, with occasional distractions from the TV and mobile phone.
  14. The key is course data – this provides a natural set of identifiers that span the full range of clearing based HE course offerings in the UK and allows third parties to build servies on this basis.

    The course codes also provide hooks against which it may be possible to deploy mappings across skills frameworks, e.g. SFIA in IT world. The course codes will also have associated JACS subject code mappings and UCAS search terms, which in turn may provide weak links into other domains, such as the world of books using vocabularies such as the Library of Congress Subject headings and Dewey classification codes.

  15. Further down the line, if we can start to associate module codes with course codes, we can start to develop services to support current students, or informal learners, by hooking in educational resources at the module level.
  16. Marketing can go several ways. For the data platform, evangelism into the HE developer community may spark innovation from within HEIs, most likely under the auspices of JISC projects. Platform data services may also be marketed to third party developers and innovators/entrepeneurs.

    Marketing of services built on top of the data platform will need to be marketed to the target audience using appropriate channels. Specialist marketers such as Campus Group may be appropriate partners here.

  17. The idea pitched is disruptive in that one of the major competitors is at first UCAS. However, if UCAS retains it’s unique role in university application and clearing, then UCAS will still play an essential, and heavily trafficked, role in undergraduate student applications to university. Course discovery and selection will, however, move away from the UCAS site towards services that better meet the needs of potential applicants. One then might imagine UCAS becoming a B2B service that acts as intermediary between student choice websites and universities, or even entertain a scenario in which UCAS is disintermediated and some other clearing mechanism instituted between universities and potential-student facing course choice portals.
  18. According to UCAS, between January and March 2010 “almost 5 million unique IP addresses accessed the UCAS subject search function” [link] In each of the last couple of years, the annual application/acceptance numbers have been of the order approx 500,000 students intake per year, on 600,000 applicants. If 10% of applicants and generate £5 per applicant, that’s £300k pa. £10 from 20% of intake, that’s £1M pa. £50 each from 40% is £10M. I haven’t managed to find out what the acquisition cost of a successful applicant is, or the advertising budget allocated to an undergraduate recruitment marketing campaign, but there are 200 or so HE institutions (going by the number of allocated HESA institution codes).

    For platform business – e.g. business model based around selling queries on linked/aggregated/mapped datasets. If you imagine a query returning results with several attributes, each result is a row and each attribute is a column, If you allow free access to x thousand query cells returned a day, and then charge for cells above that limit, you:
    Encourage wider innovation around your platform; let people run narrow queries or broad queries. License on use of data for folk to use on their own datastores/augmented with their own triples.
    Generate revenue that scales on a metered basis according to usage;
    – offer additional analytics that get your tracking script in third party web pages, helping train your learning classifiers, which makes platform more valuable.

    For a consumer facing application – eg a course choice site for potential appications is the easiest to imagine:
    – Short term model would be advertising (e.g. course/uni ads), affiliate fees on booksales for first year books? Seond hand books market eg via Facebook marketplace?
    – Medium term – affiliate for for prospectus application/fulfilment
    Long term – affiliate fee for course registration

  19. At the end of the day, if the data describing all the HE courses available in the UK is available as data, folk will be able to start to build interesting things around it…