Universities should redraw their degree programmes to put greater emphasis on quantitative skills.
That is the view expressed in a British Academy report, Count Us In: Quantitative Skills for a New Generation, which says that many UK higher education institutions have “modified degree courses in a non-quantitative direction” in recent years to reflect the “varying and often weak” ability of entrants in areas such as basic arithmetic and statistical analysis.
In some cases, such changes reflect “weaknesses” in the aptitude of lecturers too, according to the report.
But this means that graduates are ill-prepared for the data-driven demands of the modern workplace and raises the prospect that the UK’s economy will fall behind in the race to tap into the potential of “big data”, the report says.
“In universities in the USA, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland students typically develop much better quantitative skills than in even the best UK degree programmes,” the report says. “They are at the centre of the curriculum, while too often in the UK they languish in the margins.”
The report, which was published on 25 June, says that universities should “review and if necessary redesign” the content of social science and humanities degrees to give a greater role to quantitative skills.
Such an approach would bring advantages for more than employers alone, the British Academy argues. It could also benefit academic research across the disciplines, since our understanding is “underpinned by the intellectual tools at [our] disposal”, according to the report.
Universities can also play a big campaigning role, the report adds, by communicating the importance of quantitative skills to schools.
They should act together to “encourage or require” prospective students to have quantitative skills qualifications, according to the report, which says that entry requirements should be strengthened in conjunction with improvements in provision at secondary level.
Sir Ian Diamond, chair of the British Academy’s high level strategy group for quantitative skills and principal of the University of Aberdeen, said that structures had to be put in place that would start to improve the UK population’s ability to handle data.
“This is an agenda that demands the interests of decision-makers at the highest level,” he said.