The importance of data literacy in higher education

Oliver Brown, Academic Programme Manager EMEA at Qlik, says that education institutions need to provide the data skills that employers are looking for

The job market has changed – from speaking with professors and industry professionals as part of the Qlik Academic Programme, we’re seeing more and more businesses needing to recruit staff who are data literate, with the ability to read, work, analyse and argue with data. No matter what role an employee has when they enter the working world, there will be some element of data analysis required, and – in a post-fact world full of fake news and data manipulations – these skills are becoming even more integral.

Yet we’re seeing a disconnect. Recent research we conducted has shown just 18% of UK graduates are classified as data literate. Data analysis simply isn’t on the curriculum of many courses – even though any business graduate leaving university will be helped to find a job if they have this skill as part of their arsenal.

There are some courses that incorporate the teaching of some form of data analysis or literacy skills, but we’re still very much talking about those in the information management and computer science space. There’s been limited uptake in other areas – especially across Business Management and other MBA courses, which are far behind the curve when teaching students skills in that area. For many of these course leaders, when preparing students for their careers, data just doesn’t come into the equation. 

And yet, there’s such a huge need to teach people the actual skills that they will need for the real working world. They should come out of university with the ability to quickly pick up any new technology. The end goal might be to upskill students with data analysis skills, but there are even more basic attributes they can be taught. Take how good a person’s Googling skills are. It might not seem like a skill, but it’s actually very important to help find the right information – and that’s one step in knowing how to question other information sources, and learning how to delve into data.

So why isn’t data being factored into university courses when it’s such an important skill to have in the workplace? Well, there are a couple of reasons. 

We’re finding that there just aren’t the professors out there with the data literacy skills needed to teach it. I’ve spoken to a lot of people – even those on actual computing courses – and they were taught some level of data mining, but not actual data analysis. That’s because their professors have been trained in computing skills, but with training on the side of programming, rather than questioning data. Furthermore, the need for data analysis skills might be a prevalent one, but it’s a very new requirement that means lecturers over a certain age just don’t tend to have the skills themselves. They would need to take the time to learn them, and that can be a barrier to their adoption – especially when they’ve already got a lot of work on their plate.

No matter what role an employee has when they enter the working world, there will be some element of data analysis required, and – in a post-fact world full of fake news and data manipulations – these skills are becoming even more integral.

It might take time, but professors can train themselves to equip the future workforce with the skills needed to succeed. At Qlik, we offer free training to professors and it’s something we’d urge other technology companies to get behind. After all, if a professor can understand how to read, work, analyse and argue with data, then that’s something they can pass on to their students. Even those professors with some form of data understanding can use training refreshers on the very latest technologies and techniques. It makes sense that they understand the tools that they’ll be equipping their students to use.   

And it’s important that training and upskilling happens soon. There’s a socio-economic issue coming. A lot of the data or technology professors currently at UK universities are from countries which have all invested in data analytics skills. With the Government betting on AI for future productivity,  there could be a serious ramification for that strategy if we don’t have enough data literacy skills coming from the UK. When it comes to demand for learning data, if you look at the demographic of the classes where students are proactively learning data skills, 75% are from an international background. So again, if Brexit makes it tougher for those students to come to the UK, we could be left with an even bigger skills gap. We should start by tackling the issue at university level, but it’s something that should eventually be on the curriculum at secondary school – even initial skills that can be honed when students reach university. I recently went to a data conference in Derby that was attended by people from all over the world. One speaker had travelled all the way from China. His son was eight years old and already learning how to programme and do data analysis, and there’s no reason why the situation shouldn’t be the same in the UK.

So many jobs have a data requirement, and yet British students aren’t learning data literacy. That could soon put us in an awkward situation. How can we be as competitive and productive as possible as a nation if we’re failing to teach our own students one of the most sought-after skills for the workplace?

Luckily, we’re starting to see some institutions taking steps now. Take Kingston and Exeter Universities, for instance. The institutions are currently putting together a module on data analysis, but within an MBA context. They want to get business students understanding how companies work – and that means teaching them data analysis skills. It’s not just about showing them business dashboards, but equipping them with the ability to look at those dashboards and understand and interrogate them. We’re urging other universities to follow suit.  

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