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How can universities respond to the data skills gap?

26 Jan 2022 | Keren Pakes "We need to move quickly and collaboratively to develop a generation of data-savvy and data-comfortable graduates..." Keren Pakes, General Manager, The Bright Initiative,

The 'Fuelling Growth in an Age of Data' report – released just as 2021 was drawing to a close – reported that three-quarters of UK business leaders have anxiety when it comes to data.

The report was an extension of a worrying theme seen throughout 2021. In March, the Learning and Work Institute warned that the UK was heading towards a 'catastrophic' digital skills shortage 'disaster'.

In May, a report for the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) estimated that over 230,000 vacancies that require hard data skills were unfilled in the UK. And just a month later, commissioned research from Forrester found that recruiters ranked data literacy as the skill highest in demand for entry-level candidates – but that only 48% of academic institutions have data literacy skills initiatives in place.

Pipeline problems

Data skills – and basic literacy for all – sit at the core of the Government’s National Data Strategy, with ministers stressing the need for 'the formal and vocational education system to better prepare those leaving school, further education and university for increasingly data-rich lives and careers'.

The Government has described the pipeline of graduates with data skills coming from universities as ‘limited’ – and university leaders acknowledge the limited resources, knowledge and infrastructure to tackle the UK-wide tech talent shortage on their own. In 2015, Universities UK, which represents 140 institutions and vice-chancellors, published its ‘Making the Most of Data’ report, urging the sector to ‘do more’ to embed data skills across all degrees.

And with global demand for data skills rocketing, and UK universities operating in a hyper-competitive international market, data skills within curricula may increasingly inform the choices of overseas students – and their parents and sponsors.

A renewed focus on the data skills gap from within higher education would be extremely timely (and politically astute) in terms of the current national skills gap in the UK – and in the wider context of a Covid-19 economic and social recovery.

Literacy as a first step

It’s obviously vital for higher education institutions to find ways to embed data literacy and basic skills across their programmes – and not just in technical courses, as all professions will utilise data in one form or another over coming years. Forrester research concluded that 'nearly everyone from HR and marketing to sales and customer support needs to have a solid foundation in data literacy to succeed in the modern workforce'.

A major challenge for HE leaders is recruiting industry-experienced teaching staff with a strong grasp of relevant data skills – particularly given the current demand and the corporate sector’s ability to pay much higher salaries than most universities.

It’s here where course leaders can make the most out of collaboration; there is much to gain from working with the data industry and its experts, tapping into their up-to-the-minute knowledge. And in turn, the fast-growing data industry should be ready and willing to play its active part by informing the design of academic courses and modules and making skilled staff time available to teach and share experience and insight with students.

As a starting point, there should be a strong focus on promoting an understanding of the vital role data plays in society and the economy. It involves much more than just hard technical skills like coding or analytics.

In 2019, a Royal Society workshop on data skills noted the failure to equip individuals who enter professions such as teaching, journalism and politics with 'the knowledge and skills to reason effectively with data' and urged action to address this. Meanwhile, businesses say graduates are lacking attributes like data ethics and data communication skills.

In this respect, it’s important that academics and career staff talk regularly to their own industry contacts about how they are using data and what range of skills they most need and value. Demand may vary from local area to local area; Leeds with its strong financial sector will have subtly different needs to Manchester’s creative industries and the East of England’s energy cluster, for example.

Industry leaning in

The Bright Initiative’s collaboration with UK universities, like King’s College London, Royal Holloway University and the University of Oxford, has shown the value of bringing industry expertise together with learners in established educational settings. Working with educational charities, like UpReach, can help ensure that undergraduates from less-advantaged backgrounds can continue to access and sustain top graduate jobs. We must ensure the whole of society benefits from fast-moving advances in data.

My own experience of running industry-led sessions is they can be very effective in helping build students’ understanding of the international data revolution and its positive impact on the world. Students can explore real-life use cases. One example is from the health sector, where data has played a key role in saving lives during the global Covid-19 pandemic.

Collaboration with external organisations in this type of way, and tapping into cutting-edge expertise and knowledge, offers an opportunity to build teaching and learning capacity in a smart, agile way – and at a low cost to the institution.

To supplement this, teaching staff should look to take advantage of quality online resources. This way, they can support students but also enhance their own data knowledge and skills. Tableau offers free tools and data literacy courses for HE teaching staff and students, while the Data Literacy Project offers useful, free e-learning and educational resources.

When covering data in the curriculum, it’s important to stimulate curiosity and further independent inquiry. Far from being a dry and technical topic, teaching modules and sessions should include inspiring real-world examples of the latest uses of data.

For example, teaching for marketing and business degrees can cover the real-time pricing approaches of Amazon and competitors. Or, teaching for criminology courses can cover how sex and human trafficking is being tackled by using web data tools. The examples are out there, you just need to find them.

Tapping the new water

Data is often spoken of as the new water – and to effectively tap into it we need to move quickly and collaboratively to develop a generation of data-savvy and data-comfortable graduates.

Forecasts suggest that data will be a 103-billion-dollar global industry by 2027, and there are huge and exciting career opportunities for graduates who understand it and have confidence and familiarity with it.

By putting fresh energy into finding new ways to boost graduate skills and knowledge in support of the Government’s National Data Strategy, universities can put themselves at the forefront of the response to a hugely important national issue.

The Bright Initiative is a global program that uses public web data to drive positive change in society.

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