HECoS, a new subject coding system for Higher Education

You may have missed that just before Christmas HECoS (the Higher Education Classification of Subjects) was announced. I worked a little on the project that lead up to this, along with colleagues in Cetis (who lead the project), Alan Paull Serices and Gill Ferrell, so I am especially pleased to see it come to fruition. I believe that as a flexible classification scheme built on semantic web / linked data principles it is a significant contribution to how we share data in HE.

HECoS was commissioned as part of the Higher Education Data & Information Improvement Programme (HEDIIP) in order to find a replacement to JACS, the subject coding scheme currently used in UK HE when information from different institutions needs to be classified by subject. When I was first approached by Gill Ferrell while she was working on a preliminary study of to determine if it needed changing, my initial response was that something which was much more in tune with semantic web principles would be very welcome (see the second part of this post that I wrote back in 2013). HECoS has been designed from the outset to be semantic web friendly. Also, one of the issues identified by the initial study was that aggregation of subjects was politically sensitive. For starters, the level of funding can depend on whether a subject is, for example, a STEM subject or not; but there are also factors of how universities as institutions are organised into departments/faculties/schools and how academics identify with disciplines. These lead to unnecessary difficulties in subject classification of courses: it is easy enough to decide whether a course is about ‘actuarial science’ but deciding whether ‘actuarial science’ should be grouped under ‘business studies’ or ‘mathematics’ is strongly context dependent. One of the decisions taken in designing HECoS was to separate the politics of how to aggregate subjects from the descriptions of those subjects and their more general relationships to each other. This is in marked contrast to JACS where the aggregation was baked into the very identifiers used. That is not to say that aggregation hierarchies aren’t important or won’t exist: they are, and they will, indeed there is already one for the purpose of displaying subjects for navigation, but they will be created through a governance process that can consider the politics involved separately from describing the subjects. This should make the subject classification terms more widely usable, allowing institutions and agencies who use it to build hierarchies for presentation and analysis that meet their own needs if these are different from those represented by the process responsible for the standard hierarchy. A more widely used classification scheme will have benefits for the information improvement envisaged by HEDIIP.

The next phase of HECoS will be about implementation and adoption, for example the creation of the governance processes detailed in the reports, moving HECoS up to proper 5-star linked data, help with migration from JACS to HECoS and so on. There’s a useful summary report on the HEDIIP site, and a spreadsheet of the coding system itself. There’s also still the development version Cetis used for consultation, which better represents its semantic webbiness but is non-definitive and temporary.