What data skills should universities be teaching students aspiring to make a difference in global development?

Data skills are necessary for realising for the data revolution in development, as reflected in the attention devoted to activities increasing data and statistical literacy and data communication at the UN World Data Forum. The United Nations’ A World That Counts report calls for academia to provide leadership on capacity building efforts to strengthen data and statistical skills. Indeed, results from a large scale survey conducted in Asia, Europe and the US found that only 21% of 16-24 year olds are data literate, highlighting that education providers have much work to do in enhancing training in this area.

University graduates often value these skills and understand their importance once in their jobs: for example, research on the career paths of international development graduates in Canada shows that 70% perceived quantitative research skills to be ‘very important’ or ‘somewhat important’. However, this doesn’t reflect the commonplace perceptions of students whilst they are studying for social science related programmes, often the disciplines selected by those aspiring to work in development, learning data skills. A persistent theme in research about learning and teaching is that students experience statistical anxiety. It is often linked to a lack of confidence, particularly amongst students with a limited mathematical background or who have had bad experiences of mathematics teaching earlier in their education. However, above and beyond concerns about ability, an additional barrier to students’ engagement in data education is a simple lack of interest and perceived relevance to their futures – despite their potential to contribute to the data revolution in development, as global citizens, and, for some, as aspiring development professionals. In a rapidly changing data landscape, the challenges for universities are both how to enthuse students about developing their data skills, and how to ensure the skills taught are aligned with those that will be most useful for graduates seeking to make a difference in development. Development Counts: Data Skills for International Development Careers is a new project which seeks to rise to these challenges by creating teaching and learning resources specifically attuned to global development.

Funded by the ERASMUS+ programme of the European Union, the project is a collaboration between academics at Gazi Üniversitesi (Turkey), the University of Gloucestershire (UK), L-Università ta’ Malta (Malta) and Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (UNED, Spain). Each partner is currently conducting interviews with professionals working in development governmental and non-governmental organisations in their home country in order to gain insights into how data skills are used in their work, data skills deficits, and their projections for which data skills the development workforce of tomorrow will need. The interviews are ongoing but some key messages emerging from the interviews are:

  • Data linked roles in global development as an emerging career option: Recognition that data skills linked to global development is not an area graduates are commonly trained in which can make recruitment challenging whereas you have people studying development economics, and it's a very clear [graduate] market…..nobody really teaches development statistics or statistics for international development”. The sector has also been relatively slow in valuing data skills when it comes to recruitment and remuneration of employees and so graduates with these data skills turn to the private sector.
  • Broader skills required than only the technical: The value of graduates having contextual knowledge, an understanding of ethical practice, and soft skills, such as teamwork and communications, combined with data handling skills: “I think there is a strong need for these particular skills, acting at the boundary of the producers and the users of statistics”.
  • Training should provide a springboard into applied data handling: There is not necessarily an expectation that graduates would have comprehensive data skills as technical training can be provided, but rather that university education has “open[ed] the appetite” for the potential and possibilities of data analysis for real world issues and provided a baseline level of data literacy.
  • Competence in readily accessible software: Collaborative working with international partners and the value of being able to replicate analysis has spurred on the move towards using open access However, a number of participants report that licenced software are still key to operations. In addition to more specialist software, there will “always be Microsoft EXCEL” for a range of tasks because of its widespread use. However, there is a sense that it is the ability to understand how to use software for analysis and willingness to adapt to others that was valued rather than competence in a particular programme.

Once the interviews are complete, the team will use the insights gleaned from them as a basis for developing new data skills learning resources. The resources will be used to support students studying social science related disciplines at partner universities to develop their data skills by completing ‘real life’ development data projects in cross-country teams. Once piloted, open-access versions of the resources will be made available for use by the wider higher education community, as well as other interested individuals and organisations, and there will be a facility for interested universities to find collaborators to enable students to work in international teams on development data projects.

We recognise that our partnership gives a perspective on the issues from the Global North. However, amongst the countries eligible to part in the ERASMUS+ programme, partners were deliberately chosen to ensure socio-economic and cultural diversity and we hope the project will initiate conversations on university-based data training for development across world regions, through outlets like the UN World Data Forum. To find out more about the project, or to get involved as an interested organisation, university, or individual, please take a look at our website: