Data and the future of universities

I’ve been doing quite a lot of thinking about how we use data in education. In the last few years two things have combined – the computing ability to collect and analyse large datasets, allied to the movement by many governments and administrative bodies towards open data.

Yet despite all the excitement and hype about the potential of using such data in education, it isn’t as easy as it sounds. I have written before about issues with Learning Analytics – in particular that is tends to be used for student management rather than for improving learning.

With others I have been working on how to use data in careers advice, guidance and counselling. I don’t envy young people today in trying to choose and  university or college course and career. Things got pretty tricky with the great recession of 2009. I think just before the banks collapsed we had been putting out data showing how banking was one of the fastest growing jobs in the UK. Add to the unstable economies and labour markets, the increasing impact of new technologies such as AI and robotics on future employment and it is very difficult for anyone to predict the jobs of the future. And the main impact may well be nots o much in new emerging occupations,or occupations disappearing but in the changing skills and knowledge required n different jobs.

One reaction to this from many governments including the UK has been to push the idea of employability. To make their point, they have tried to measure the outcomes of university education. But once more, just as student attainment is used as a proxy for learning in many learning analytics applications, pay is being used as a proxy for employability. Thus the Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO) survey, an experimental survey in the UK, users administrative data to measure the pay of graduates after 3, 5 and 0 years, per broad subject grouping per university. The trouble is that the survey does not record the places where graduates are working. And once thing we know for a certainty is that pay in most occupations in the UK is very different in different regions. The LEO survey present a wealth of data. But it is pretty hard to make any sense of it. A few things stand out. First is that UK labour markets look pretty chaotic. Secondly there are consistent gender disparities for graduates of the same subject group form individual universities. The third point is that prior attainment before entering university seems a pretty good predictor of future pay, post graduation. And we already know that prior attainment is closely related to social class.

A lot of this data is excellent for research purposes and it is great that it is being made available. But the collection and release of different data sets may also be ideologically determined in what we want potential students to be able to find out. In the same way by collecting particular data, this is designed to give a strong steer to the directions universities take in planning for the future. It may well be that a broader curriculum and more emphasis on process and learning would most benefits students. Yet the steer towards employability could be seen to encourage a narrower focus on the particular skills and knowledge employers say they want in the short term and inhibit the wider debates we should be having around learning and social inclusion.


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