Action on the data skills gap can’t wait until next term

“Data is often spoken of as the new water, so to effectively tap it we need to develop a generation of data prospectors”

As thoughts inevitably turn to summer vacations (global pandemic allowing, of course), the data skills gap might not be something keeping UK university professionals and leaders awake at night.

But with a still box-fresh National Data Strategy (NDS) in place and the government signalling an ambition for data to drive “anew era of growth”, it’s an issue that shouldn’t simply be pushed to the new term’s ‘to do’ list.

There’s a growing concern that a data ‘skills gap’ could turn into a ‘skills crisis’, both for the UK but also globally.

And with universities operating in a competitive international market, the provision of data skills modules within degree courses will increasingly inform decision-making of overseas students – and their parents and sponsors. Or Lenchner, CEO of Bright Data, explains.

The UK minister for media and data, John Whittingdale, recently described the supply of graduates with data skills from universities as ‘limited’. Figures published by his department showed that employers simply don’t see UK higher education institutions as obvious places to send staff for training.

It is now six years since Universities UK took a serious, deep dive into the data skills challenge in its ‘Making The Most of Data’ report, which urged the sector to do more to embed data skills across all degrees.

But with an estimated 234,000 vacancies that require hard data skills sitting open in the UK, and Ministers openly wondering about the ability of universities to be part of the solution, the sector may benefit from some fresh ideas and thinking.

Data is often spoken of as the new water, so to effectively tap it we need to develop a generation of data prospectors. There are huge career opportunities for young people building data skills and familiarity with using data

With forecasts suggesting that data will be a 103-billion-dollar industry globally by 2027, there is a window of opportunity for universities to come together with industry in support of the NDS; to put themselves at the forefront of the drive to close the data skills gap; and to strengthen their importance to the UK’s economic success.

It is absolutely vital for education institutions to factor development of data skills into their programmes  – not just on technical courses as all professions will utilise data in one form or another over coming years.

The UK Government has recognised this through the NDS and the emphasis it places on data skills. This lays out a clear challenge to universities that aligns with the increasing need to show value for money through increasing their students’ career prospects.

Universities and their students have much to gain from working with industry – as the work that institutions around the world are doing with us at Bright Data demonstrates.

Our recent collaboration with King’s College London as well as Royal Holloway University and University of Oxford showed the value of bringing industry expertise together with learners in established educational settings.

The initiative helped to build students’ understanding of things like the international data revolution and the shift in online data consumption amongst large enterprises in the UK. The sessions also helped students to explore real-life use cases from the health sector, where data has played a key role in saving lives during the global pandemic.

The acute global shortage of skilled data scientists and analysts is, of course, affecting universities, who will be competing for highly-prized professionals to teach data modules across their courses.

Collaboration with external organisations like Bright Data, tapping into cutting-edge expertise and knowledge, offers an opportunity to build teaching and learning capacity in an agile way, adding genuine value to students’ degree courses and equipping them to fulfil their potential in a data-driven world.

It’s clear that the need for students to nurture data skills  – and to have an appreciation of the ethical considerations that need to be accounted for in using data – is only going to increase over time. Demand for data skills and knowledge from informed, savvy, value-focused students and their parents will also grow.

It’s vital that all universities take stock now of this moment of opportunity, to respond to the call, and ensure they are doing all they can to prepare their students to thrive in the global data economy.

As the saying goes, there’s no time like the present to get started.

About the author: Or Lenchner is CEO at Bright Data.