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Exploiting the Government's education data could help to bridge the UK skills gap, says Cambridge expert

Fully exploiting the Government’s education data could help to bridge the skills gap that is holding back UK businesses, Cambridge expert Prof Anna Vignoles has said at a Rustat Conference session on the application of Big Data, held at Jesus College. Prof Anna Vignoles is a College Fellow and University Professor of Education (1938).

The UK’s skills gap has been highlighted by both the Confederation of British Industry (CBI)¹ and the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA)² this year. The CBI reported that over half of employers (55%) are not confident there will be enough people available in the future with the necessary skills to fill their high-skilled jobs¹.

In the last ten years, the Government has allowed researchers to access some of its educational data under secure conditions. Academics including Prof Vignoles have recently mapped the journeys taken by students from the age of four right through to employment³. During a session on the application of Big Data and data driven business models, Prof Vignoles argued that researchers could now use earnings data to determine which skills are in greater demand in the labour market, and feed this back into policy to ensure that the education system teaches the skills needed by UK companies.

Prof Vignoles said:

“Many firms have difficulties recruiting people with the right skills, and are having to pay a big premium for some skills. Although we can survey firms about their needs, the results can be misleading, not least because only a select group of companies may respond.

“I have been working with colleagues to accurately analyse graduate earnings, using anonymous Government administrative data³. This type of analysis can show how earnings vary for different types of graduates, and so indicate which skills are in short supply.

“For example, let’s say that the next stage of our research reveals that graduates with strong analytical skills are in demand. This data could inform students, universities and policy makers, and may result in courses offering more training in analytical skills. More graduates will then have the analytical skills needed by businesses, and the skills gap should start to close.

“Of course, providing information is not enough to change policy, but without good data any policy development is likely to be ineffective. The UK is world-leading when it comes to education data, but it is only recently that a Big Data approach has been used to look at graduate earnings. Fully exploiting the Government's education data could help to bridge the UK skills gap.

“However there should always be strict limitations on the way data is used to ensure that people’s privacy is protected. We need to have an informed debate about the extent to which members of the public are happy for data collected by the state to be used in this way.”

Rustat Conferences are held three times a year at Jesus College, Cambridge, with this conference focusing on Big Data. Other sessions explored the Internet of Things, sharing data and respecting individual rights without disrupting new business models, and the legal aspects of Big Data. Rustat Conferences offer an opportunity for decision-makers from the frontlines of politics, business, finance, the media and education to discuss vital issues with leading academic experts.

Prof Vignoles sits on the steering group of the University of Cambridge’s Big Data Research Initiative. This brings together researchers to address challenges presented by access to unprecedented volumes of data, as well as important issues around law, ethics and economics, in order to apply Big Data to solve challenging problems for society.


¹ Inspiring Growth, CBI/Pearson Education and Skills Survey 2015, CBI, 2015.

² 75% of UK school leavers lack essential job skills according to finance bosses, CIMA, 2015.

³ Comparing sample survey measures of English earnings of graduates with administrative data during the Great Recession, IFS, 2015.


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