Marian Hilditch | Data encounters of the third kind

Sam Bayley reports on Marian Hilditch’s Keynote | Data encounters of the third kind at the AUA Conference 2019

Marian HilditchMarian Hilditch
Head of Data Quality | Teesside University (to end of April)
Deputy Academic Registrar | Bradford University (from May)

About Marian

Marian Hilditch is Head of Data Quality at Teesside University and member of the SROC steering committee. She has worked in Higher Education since 2008 across data, systems and records, though she’s picked up a few other things along the way. When not at her desk, she can be found in national roundtables and working groups with a good cup of coffee, exploring collaboration and best practice across the sector.

Sam BayleySam Bayley
Departmental Manager | University of York
AUA Trustee

The future of HE data has arrived, according to Marian Hilditch, data expert and soon to be Deputy Academic Registrar at the University of Bradford. The Cambridge Analytica scandal showed us that not only is Big Brother watching us… it now has the power to understand us. Even those of us with relatively low data profiles cannot escape, the more that is known about people like you, the more can be extrapolated to work out your secrets.

The Office for Students’ data strategy shows that they want to know what universities are doing, no longer just through data returns such as the postponed Data Futures project but also through ‘big data’ harvested from social media and elsewhere. This risks institutions losing control of the story, so we will have to adapt to new ways of thinking and working.
Despite a narrative of burden reduction from the OfS, the amount of change in the data world is placing ever increasing demands on university teams, there is a hope one day of a payoff from this upfront investment but that may be some time away. In the meantime, there are ever-new ways of ranking universities being developed (see the Registrarism blog for some interesting examples!), with each one making Vice-Chancellors sweat and inevitably asking for internal business intelligence to improve their institution’s standing.

Of course, with data we can do great things, identifying and helping at-risk students, improving our service offer, and helping to differentiate providers across the sector, but the ethics of doing so are still very much being debated. Campaigners like James Murray have urged universities to use these patterns of data more effectively; but what happens when resources are overstretched, we know there’s a problem, but can’t act on our findings? No doubt a lot of good can be done with great data. but there’s no escaping the “creepiness” factor. Throw AI into the mix and human biases can be inadvertently coded and reinforced, leaving some students even further adrift. When we consider how little training and development opportunities are on offer to help staff in this area, it’s clear that there are huge opportunities for improvement.

One of our delegates summed up Marian’s session perfectly, “a discussion of data ethics that was simultaneously so stark and so refreshing”. We have lots of work to do to make sure we’re fit for the future.

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