Upskilling the workforce: University-wide Data Skills Training

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This blog post represents a narrative summary of the short talk on the topic “Upskilling the Workforce – University-wide Data Skills Training”, given at The University of Edinburgh Learning and Teaching Conference in June 2022 by Teresa Ironside (MBA, Director of Data Science Education, Bayes Centre), Jenny Britton (Head of Executive Development, Business School), and Douglas Graham, (Director of Business Engagement, Edinburgh Futures Institute). This post is part of the Hot Topic: Learning & Teaching Conference 2022.

Upskilling the Workforce: Challenge and opportunities  

In 2019, the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) repurposed funding into what they referred to as ‘Upskilling Funding’, and looked to Universities and Further Education Colleges to supply short courses aimed at providing opportunities for the Scottish Workforce. The challenge for us was to create a series of engaging, short courses that would bring in working professionals to meet industry demand and SFC requirements, while ensuring that we linked this training to the strategic priorities of the University.

We saw an opportunity to use this funding to leverage cross-campus collaboration, working with colleagues across all three Colleges, to create a focal point externally for data skills training, which linked to University’s role in the City Region Deal and Data Driven Innovation Programme. We also saw an opportunity to make the most of the growing market for short courses, continued professional development, and lifelong learning, while also encouraging access to further study and opportunities for those who may not have considered University education previously.

The Bayes Centre have been leading on the portfolio development and management with contributions and input from across the University. Over the first three years of the programme, we took a stepped approach to address this challenge and make the most of this opportunity for the benefit of the University and students:

  • Step 1: We have identified stakeholders that included meetings with SFC and internal partners to understand the landscape and delivery within this space, and how data skills fit with their respective agendas.
  • Step 2: We worked with internal partners to build on existing capabilities, including expanding on courses and programmes already available. We initially used the experience we had within the Bayes Centre of offering postgraduate courses on a standalone basis, then extending to other areas of the University and expanding the offer to include workshops, executive education and masterclasses. We brought in expertise from areas like the Business School, Centre for Open Learning, and the School of Informatics. The portfolio consists of new, redeveloped, or existing content.
  • Step 3: We supported the development of new content by providing development and delivery funding in addition to fee waivers per student taught to all participating Schools, Deaneries and Data Driven Innovation (DDI) Hubs. This included new provision by the Edinburgh Futures Institute, the Usher Institute and AgriTech.
  • Step 4: We’ve also worked to build a front door to data skills training for professionals through marketing, and providing a single entry point for applications for courses from across the campus.

Evidenced success

The portfolio of courses has grown year-on-year with additional internal partners joining. We started off with five courses and have run 30 across the University this year. Planning discussions are underway for the next academic year with an expectation that we will run 45 course options.

The number of students and learners taught has also grown with over 600 expected by the end of this academic year (2021/22).  This number includes many learners and students who would otherwise not be studying with the University had it not been for this opportunity to study while they work.

There is a cluster of activity around data science, bringing key stakeholders together (DDI, EFI, UEBS, Bayes) which has created a centre of gravity and opportunity to share examples/best practice, and create new collaborations. We have also been able to encourage further study onto existing and new postgraduate programmes, giving access to students who may have felt University study was not an option for them. We have had positive feedback from both students/learners and academic staff involved in teaching.

Case Study: Climate change risk in Finance (Business School and EFI)

  • 10-week, online programme focused on raising awareness and management of climate risk, supporting businesses and individuals respond to changes in financial services.
  • 128 participants from 43 different companies across two cohorts, including 28 fully-funded places.
  • Mix of self-paced and live, facilitated discussions.
  • Take-aways include the importance of live sessions to drive high quality engagement, and the role of open enrolment courses to provide timely and relevant opportunities to connect with practitioners and businesses on issues we’re researching.

Lessons learned from the Case Study

We have a fantastic, like-minded group of academics and professional services staff working together to deliver an exciting portfolio that has grown in numbers of courses and students/learners over the years. It provides those involved with the space to create content that best meets the demand of the workforce and provides direct economic benefits through teaching. Skills can be implemented straight away by working professionals. It opens access to those who may not have thought they could study at the University and encourages a culture of lifelong learning.

As this has been a large change initiative for the University we have had some challenges and have learned quite a lot.

What went well?

We have:

  • met external funding needs while delivering key internal targets linked to University priorities, for example, those linked to the City Region deal;
  • had positive feedback from learners about ways in which the courses have had a direct and immediate benefit to their careers;
  • been able to develop content for an expanding market with increased demand for short courses;
  • had feedback from academic course leads about the positive impact on their research activities teaching on the portfolio has had.

What was challenging?

  • We found that competing demands for faculty/academics made it difficult for some who showed interest to be involved.
  • Non-traditional learning such as this is often not a priority, so meeting industry demand can be difficult.
  • Internal processes and decision making in new areas could slow progress.

Which means that:

We will:

  • focus on coalitions of the willing and building best practice for non-traditional course development and delivery in order to continue to expand the portfolio and meet funding requirements;
  • utilise external funding to help support new activity and continue to review in-demand areas linked to our strategic priorities for the benefit of learners;
  • be courageous and flexible in course development and delivery;
  • remember that post-experience learning is different than traditional learning and is a potential route to impact.

Please feel free to get in touch with any of us or at if you’d like additional information or to get involved.

You can watch the Learning & Teaching Conference presentation on this topic on the Conference Website.

picture of editor/producerTeresa Ironside

Teresa Ironside, MBA, is Director of Data Science Education, Bayes Centre. Working within The University of Edinburgh for nearly 15 years in professional services and student administration management roles, Teresa has led a number of data science training initiatives. This includes development of courses and programmes linked to the Bayes Centre’s Talent remit as part of the Data Driven Innovation (DDI) programme in the City Region Deal. She leads on collaborative work across the University with Schools and DDI Hubs as well as affiliated partners, including the Data Skills Workforce Development Upskilling portfolio.

picture of editor/producerJenny Britton

Jenny Britton is Head of Executive Development in the Business School. Jenny is an experienced manager with a background in project initiation, membership development and communications. She heads up the Executive Development team, which provides support across a range of post-experience programmes including the MBA, EMBA and Executive Education open and custom programmes. She has experience of the SME sector, having run her own business offering executive and business development, and is a qualified professional coach and action learning set facilitator. She provides coaching support to the MBA and Executive MBA cohorts.

picture of editor/producerDouglas Graham

Douglas Graham is Director of Business Engagement, Edinburgh Futures Institute. With over a decade of business development experience within The University of Edinburgh and previous partnership management experience in the private sector, Douglas leads collaborative partnerships building with organisations in the private, public and third sectors for the Edinburgh Futures Institute. This includes executive education opportunities and collaborative partnerships with key experts from across the University to provide education that matches the changing needs of our society.

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