Interview: Data Education in Colleges

Delivering more opportunities for citizens to advance their data and digital skills is a core commitment of the Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal. Data skills are becoming increasingly important in people’s everyday lives and Scotland’s economy. We caught up with May Flett, Data Education in Colleges Lead, and Jon Buglass, Vice Principal of Innovation, Planning and Performance at Edinburgh College, to discuss how they plan to equip people with the relevant skills through their Data Education in Colleges programme.

The Scottish digital technology sector provides 13,000 job opportunities annually, but it is estimated by Scotland IS that only about 5,000 workers with the relevant skills are currently produced by colleges, universities and apprenticeships. The need to fill this skills gap has long been anticipated, but the crises of 2020 have accelerated the transformation of the world of work. COVID-19 has revolutionised the way people work, making basic digital skills indispensable and highlighting the importance of data in decision making. In 2020, the Scottish Government forecast that unemployment could reach 10% as a result of the crises. In addition, Brexit is expected to make it more difficult to recruit non-UK nationals to overcome skills gaps, a strategy employed by 13% of employers in the Edinburgh and South East Scotland Region, according to Skills Development Scotland.

Work has been underway for several years to improve data skills in Scotland, with the bleak forecast outlined above only serving to make these efforts more urgent. The 2018 Edinburgh South East Scotland City Region Deal pledged £25 million over 15 years to develop Integrated Regional Employability and Skills activities. Under this umbrella, the Data Driven Innovation Skills Gateway aims to bring together industry, universities, colleges, schools and other institutions to provide progression routes into data driven careers and thus help drive high value growth. May Flett and Jon Buglass work together on the Data Education in Colleges workstream which is a collaboration between Fife College, West Lothian College, Borders College, and Edinburgh College.


No one size fits all
Filling the skills gap is more nuanced than simply creating a universal mandatory data science module for all college students; different data skill levels are needed for different people in different occupations. Jon Buglass identifies the issue of the Edinburgh region’s ‘hourglass economy’: “you have large numbers of people in the Edinburgh region who have a very high level of education because of the large numbers attending the universities [….] When you look at the population, we have lots of people with low level skills and qualifications doing many essential jobs and then we have lots of people who are overqualified for the jobs they do. We are trying to fill the middle of this hourglass economy where there is the most demand for skills. It is our ambition that we will start to see this smoothing out as people are appropriately trained and employed for jobs through college, especially at HND (SCQF level 8).”

The colleges are taking a multi-pronged approach to solving this problem by identifying three levels of data expertise: data citizens, data workers, and data professionals. Jon  explains: “We look at data citizens working at a  lower qualification level, people who are able to use or navigate data with mobile apps, for example . Data workers are those at a middle level, students aiming to achieve SCQF level 6 or 7 and looking to work with data in a range of occupations. Beyond that, SCQF levels 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12, are the high-end data professionals who might be working in developing data software or higher-level data analysis.”


Embedding data science
May Flett has taken up the challenge of overseeing the creation of a curriculum that teaches data skills at various levels, across various disciplines and colleges. Sixteen new courses are being developed to improve people’s data skills, in addition to data-specific modules to be integrated in existing courses. May highlights the importance of these courses and modules: “Regardless of whether a student is involved in a business, engineering, or hairdressing course, data skills could be really helpful for that individual.”

Jon Buglass goes on to explain that beyond benefits for individuals, embedding data skills is vital for the long term goal of smoothing out the hourglass economy: “From our point of view, to get big numbers and skill large numbers of people up it isn’t enough to advertise new courses and hope students will be attracted to them. To get that large scale change in  essential skills for Industrie 4.0 and Technology you have to embed it across curriculum delivery.”

In keeping with the spirit of the DDI Skills Gateway, the colleges are also partnering with schools and universities to offer various paths to data driven careers. Jon discusses the new associate degree route linked to Heriot Watt University and May talks about the National Progression Award in Data Science that will be offered at Edinburgh College in partnership with local schools.


Data skills for everyone
When asked who the above programmes, courses and modules target, May Flett responded: “basically, everybody! It is a sea change approach. At first, when people hear the term ‘data science’ they tend to think that is for someone who wants to become a data scientist. We are trying to move away from that thought and to regard data science or data skills as something we should all have regardless of vocational area.”

Jon Buglass is proud to say that “everybody” really does mean “everybody” when discussing the college student body. The project explicitly aims to include “women returners to work and deliver new courses that would bring in students from harder to reach backgrounds, perhaps people that are unemployed, have disabilities, are veterans, or are BME.” In Edinburgh College “we currently have about 28,000 students and about a quarter of them have a registered learning support need. We are talking about a very large impact that colleges have in terms of inclusive growth, and I think this is the huge value that colleges offer”

In the context of COVID-19, the importance of supporting vulnerable groups is even more pronounced. The economic repercussions of the virus are adversely affecting women, the young, and low earners, and certain sectors such as hospitality and tourism, health and beauty, and arts and entertainment are particularly badly hit. A few large employers in the Borders have had to make people redundant, and in response Borders College has accelerated its delivery of courses, focusing on Level 4 NPA Data Science, aiming to support and retrain people to reenter the workforce. For May Flett, the Data Education in Colleges project will be a success if it makes tangible changes in these people’s lives: “In very simple terms what I would like to see at the end is that we really have achieved something in terms of reaching out to people. You can see it in the statistics, that people have been successful, that they understand the data, the importance of it, and they have benefitted by gaining employment or moving onto higher levels of study. That would be my sense of achievement.”

It is the same human side that Jon Buglass focuses on: “We talk about becoming the data capital of Europe, but it isn’t just about the big capital building projects and big data across the wider city deal, it is also about the data citizens, workers, and professionals; it is about them.”


For more information on courses available visit:

West Lothian college

Borders College

Edinburgh College

Fife College

Researchers collaborating around a computer

When people hear the term ‘data science’ they tend to think that is for someone who wants to become a data scientist. We are trying to move away from that thought and to regard data science or data skills as something we should all have regardless of vocational area.

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