The Data Game: Building Analytics Capability in International Education

[Originally published by IEAA’s Vista Magazine (Summer 2016/17) — I’d strongly recommend following them online and reading their publications if you’re interested in Australian international education!]

Embracing an analytic mindset and capitalising on the technologies in the era of big data are key to reaching Australia’s strategic international education goals, writes Darragh Murray.

A tale of prediction and teenage pregnancy

In 2012, journalist Charles Duhigg came across a fascinating story concerning the power of prediction and teenage pregnancy. Writing for the New York Times, Duhigg told how an irate man confronted the manager of a Target department store in the United States, demanding to know why the retailer kept sending his teenage daughter coupons for baby clothes and lotions.

“Are you trying to encourage my daughter to get pregnant?!” the angry father complained, presenting the unfortunate manager with bundles of baby-related paraphernalia. The manager had little idea how this had occurred and promised to follow up. However, investigations were cut short when the father rang back days later to apologise. His teenage daughter was indeed pregnant and somehow Target knew before her family did.

How could Target possibly know this? Well, the answer is through the precise use of data and analytics. Target had been heavily investing in analytics capability — a specialty that places data at the centre of knowledge discovery and communication. Through the use of predictive models, the store could precisely identify potentially pregnant customers based on historical shopping patterns.

While this anecdote is both fascinating and creepy, it reminds us how modern industries are leveraging vast amounts of data to pursue strategic business objectives. Whether it be targeting customers who are expecting, or using data to evaluate the potential of international student markets, skilled use of data is quickly becoming a resource on which businesses and organisations compete.

The data revolution

Using data to solve problems isn’t a recent development. What we now call data science has been widely used in the fields of science and engineering since the 1970s, typically for risk management and workplace health and safety. The field gathered further steam during the 1990s when banking and finance increasingly used data monitoring for combating fraud and credit card theft.

The recent convergence of massive computational power, inexpensive data storage and the development of modern data mining and machine learning technologies has led to the mainstreaming of data as a valuable everyday business resource. It all culminates in the emergence of ‘big data’ as the latest buzzword across the land.

This data and analytics revolution is now seen as critical to the ongoing development of the modern global economy. In their excellent work Competing on Analytics, researchers Davenport and Harris argue that data is now the key resource organisations must use to discover the distinctive capabilities that keep them competitive (see also this HBR article written by Davenport in 2006 for a summary of this great book).

As shown in Figure 1 (p.18), Davenport and Harris conceptualised a scale of organisational analytics capability, ranging from basic standard reporting to advanced predictive models that permit data-driven forecasting and risk management optimisation. If your organisation is still monitoring key metrics using simple standard reports, you may already be lagging behind.

How then does the analytics revolution intersect with the Australian international education sector? Given the growing number of internationally mobile students — as well as increasing interest from modern economies with advanced education systems in teaching these students — the idea of competing on analytics and data is highly relevant. Knowing more about potential international students before competitors do makes sense if Australia wants to continue to attract the highest quality international students.

Education providers who can compete best in terms of data and analytics will reap the future benefits. Australia’s international education sector is fortunate to have one comparative advantage: we have a large amount of good quality student data that other markets seemingly do not.

Australia’s comparative data advantage

Australia has world class data on its international students. Government agencies such as the Department of Immigration and Border Protection(DIBP) regularly publish detailed and timely statistics on student visa application and grant rates that permit analysis of future demand. Similarly, the Department of Education and Training (DET) provides valuable information on international student enrolments and commencements that can be sliced and diced by numerous metrics across all sectors within international education.

Online data portals such as the uCube allow detailed local competitor analysis and benchmarking. Australia’s Market Information Package (MIP) is a global leader in international student data visualisation, providing an integrated business intelligence platform (see Figure 2) that allows institutions and business the ability to analyse the Australian international student market without large scale IT infrastructure investment.

These examples don’t even take into account the countless other sources of private organisational information on Australia’s international student cohort that can be integrated into these robust public sources.

Such up-to-date and integrated sources of data are not exactly evident in other competing markets for international students. For example, the United States relies on Open Doors published by the Institute of International Education, whereas the Higher Education Statistic Agency (HESA) in the United Kingdom provides some wide-ranging details on the entire student population.

While these services are undoubtedly handy, they don’t seem to have the specialist, integrated or flexible platforms for data analysis that the Australian sector enjoys. They can also suffer from lack of timely updates or data that is difficult to extract and analyse.

It’s not unreasonable to claim that Australia is a market leader in international student data. The question is, how can we use these datasets to further Australia’s international education sector?

Building analytics capability: the data-driven mindset

Good business decisions are supported by robust data and comprehensive analysis. As Davenport and Harris assert, organisations that are successful in certain markets where competitors flail are nearly certainly winning by driving their strategic business decisions using analytics and data.

Given Australia’s enviable international student data resources, a change of mindset and some creativity may be all that’s needed to start making large competitive gains. Let’s examine a few examples. Assume you’re trying to decide whether to enter an international student market. The ‘gut-feel’ response may be to justify decisions based on what you’ve read in the media, the recommendation of a trusted colleague or on the basis of what your organisation has done before.

The analytical, data-driven mindset demands much more. A good place to start would be to test for key influential variables in a relevant dataset. Can you identify factors in other mature markets that have historically influenced growth based on data alone? Are variables like gross domestic product or scholarship availability influential and relevant in this case? Finding the answers to such questions in the available data can assist in both firming up confidence in a recommendation as well as result in better strategic planning.

Furthermore, data familiarisation is paramount in building analytics capability. Data mining and visualisation tools such as IBM SPSS, Tableau or TIBCO Spotfire, can be helpful aids in understanding the natural relationships underpinning datasets. Clustering, a technique by which to organise data into distinct groups based on their natural attributes, can be very useful in uncovering insight.

This advanced level of analytics capabilities means moving into the territory of predictive models. This involves examining historical patterns in datasets to help make informed forecasts about the future. Predictive modelling leverages machine learning techniques such as classification, neural networks and logistical regression.

Use of these techniques could afford international education organisations the ability to calculate international application outcome probabilities, or even whether a current student will pass or fail their first year. Predictive modelling has incredible value and countless uses in the context of Australia’s international education sector.

The take away message here is that pressing business problems should be tackled by moving from the intuitive to the analytic. Embracing an analytic mindset and capitalising on the technologies in the age of big data could be the key for furthering Australia’s strategic international education goals.

Signal and noise

Australia has set out a bold, three pillar agenda in its ‘National Strategy for International Education 2025’. Many of the goals set out in the strategy, particularly in pillar three ‘Competing Globally’, can be furthered simply by improving our collective analytical capability and embracing data-driven decision making mindset. Competitive modern day organisations invest in advanced analytical capability, using technologies and methods such as data mining, clustering and predictive models to better understand and tackle key strategic problems.

The Australian international education sector is not immune to these developments and there will come a time where we will need to rely on our comparative data advantage to keep ahead of competing international education hubs. We have the raw materials, it’s just a case of building on these to advance the industry’s collective analytics capability and stay ahead of the competition.

GIVE IT YOUR BEST DATASET

Enhancing organisational analytics and building data knowledge isn’t simply a case of grabbing a dataset and hoping for the best. Here are three titbits of advice about how someone in an analytics position can help their organisation do more with data.

Focus on process and the end objective

Doing data correctly requires time, precision and purpose. Colleagues may not be as aware of how complicated organising and manipulating data may be and aren’t forthcoming with all of their business requirements when requesting the data they need to make decisions. The more regimented you are with gathering requirements ahead of any analytics-based project, the better it will be for you and your organisation. If you’re asked to do data analysis without a solid strategic reason, you’re simply wasting your time.

Some core skills can go a long way

Basic statistical skills are very helpful for understanding the shape of data. Learn how to compile a five-number statistical summary, know how different measures of averages such as median and mean work and come to grips with the concept of outliers. These are all key skills to being able to understand your data. It takes time to turn data into meaningful insight and requires good skills in data manipulation. Being able to organise information using relational databases or even good spreadsheet skills can take you a long way in the data game.

Communication is key

Even if you’re the greatest statistician or data scientist known to humankind, it’s worth peanuts if you cannot communicate insight correctly. Being able to write about data succinctly and with purpose — alongside the skillful use of meaningful data visualisation — will do a lot more for increasing executive support and increasing organisation analytics capability. Often, when it comes to communicating data, less is more.

DATA SOURCES

www.education.gov.au/higher-education-statistics

www.education.gov.au/ucube-higher-education-data-cube

www.austrade.gov.au/Australian/Education/Services/Market-Information-Package

www.border.gov.au/about/reports-publications/research-statistics/statistics/study-in-australia

OTHER LINKS

Australian international education market performs well in ICEF agent barometer

The ever comprehensive ICEF Monitor has published some early results from their eight annual agent barometer survey (co published with iGraduate).

Given the lifting on the ban on foreign agents in US institutions, it is perhaps not unexpected that agents would be referring more students to US institutions – the barometer reports that 80% of agents expect to send more students to the US.

Australia places highly in the metric, with around about 68% of agents stating they’ll be sending students down under. Promisingly for Australia, only 27% of agents reported issues with students getting visas – down from 43% the year before, whereas over half of agents thought Canada was the most difficult.

The report specifically highlights Australia, stating:

Perhaps not coincidentally, at the end of 2013 the Australian government began easing visa rules for the non-university sector and generally reassuring the international higher education sector that it would receive more attention and support from the government.

With visa approvals being a strong indicator of future enrolments, such an indicator is good for the Australian international student market.

Internships, work experience needed for international students in Australia

A recent report into graduate opportunities for international students within Australia argues that in order to be competitive with domestic graduates, international students coming out of Australian institutions need to gain far more practical and work-ready skills in order to compete.

Joint research between Deakin University and UTS, Australian International Graduates and the Transition to Employment, provides some valuable business insight into what prospects international students might face if they choose to stay in Australia and compete with domestic students for graduate positions.

The report indicates that international students may be at a profound disadvantage compared to domestic students in the post-study work environment, even in spite of the changes made to visa conditions after the Knight Review recommendations were endorsed by the previous federal government, stating that “Despite having an Australian qualification in an area of skills shortage, the study found that there are multiple barriers to graduate labour market entry.”

Essentially the report makes five key findings. They are:

  • Local work experience remains a very important aspect of the Australian study experience for international graduates.
  • International students are coming to Australia expecting that upon graduation they will be able to find work here.
  • There is a varying level of graduate demand between different disciplines, with disciplines like accounting, engineering and nursing (the main focus of the Deakin/UTS report) showing an oversupply of new graduates.
  • Employers are now expecting graduates to seamlessly transition into their work place operations, and therefore requiring graduates with demonstrable work-ready skills.
  • Communication skills are key, particularly English language, and this may place some international students at a disadvantage in the local labour market. Therefore both international students and institutions must work to improve their prospects by increasing English language capacity and improving local networks.

There is an obvious lesson to take from this timely report: It’s clear that the value of work placements and internships is becoming a more important part of the international student experience.

I’d hasten to suggest that those Australian universities or tertiary education providers that can build great internship programs – both at undergraduate and postgraduate level – that focus on providing work-based placements will be critical to maintaining the strength of international education in Australia over the coming few years.

I would also suggest that it will be a critical part of keeping up with our global competitors, particularly from those ambitions nations with growing interests in international education.

This is just one issue I’ve cherry picked from the report, which is quite detailed and worth your while. Of course, there are issues in changing the mindset of Australian business to that of international students and the potential value they might add to the wider economic system, and those issues are also considered within the report.

Student mobility, international and the power of data

Too good not to share.

Rob Malaki, Director of AIM Overseas (an Australian company specialising in organising short-course programs for higher education students) has put together a very interesting blog on using data and analytics to empower and measure student mobility. It’s a well-written post praising the power of data for empowering good business decisions in the international student recruitment and mobility space.

Rob makes a very pertinent point about the relationship between data and student mobility:

So where do student mobility teams start looking to answer the data collection/analysis question?
The starting point should be the following principle: measure and track everything you possibly can and use that data to streamline your systems and processes.

I suggest reading the entire article which is linked below.

International education: A quick skim through Building Australia’s Comparative Advantage.

While those working in the industry might feel it’s taken for granted given that economic headlines tend to focus on mining and agriculture, Australia’s international education export market is continuing to boom, remaining competitive globally, and often the envy of many other developed nations around the globe.

And yesterday, Catherine Livingstone, the President of the Business Council of Australia (“BCA”), acknowledged international education’s continued importance to the mix and vitality of the Australian economy when the BCA published their report into the future challenges facing Australia’s economic competitiveness in a report entitled Building Australia’s Comparative Advantage.

While the focus of the BCA report is across the breadth of the economy, international education features prominently, with the authors arguing that that international education in Australia is performing well, but there are a number of potential threats on the horizon that might undermine future growth and performance.

The publication is actually in response to another recent report published by consulting company McKinsey Australia Compete to Prosper: Improving Australia’s Global Competitiveness who were commissioned by the BCA to examine Australia’s current and future economic performance in global markets. The essential conclusion of both reports was aptly summed up by the Business Council of Australia:

The results indicate that, across a range of measures, most industry sectors are not competitive when compared to the US and that the trend in our relative competitive position has remained the same over the last decade.” (BCA 2014: 4)

So with the above in mind, I thought I’d take a quick read through both reports to see what they had to say specifically about international education. The results shouldn’t surprise anyone who has worked in international education in Australia for any length of time.

BCA: Building Australia’s Comparative Advantages

The BCA report goes on to highlight a number of positives regarding Australia’s international education industry:

  • The report forecasts that international education exports could grow to $26 billion by 2020 if the sector can achieve the same market share it did in 2009 (BCA 2014: 17).
  • Along with agriculture, mining, tourism, international education is one competitive market that Australia is competing extremely well in at a global level (BCA 2014: 25)
  • Australia performs very well in attracting skilled migrants and our international education industry is a key driver of this performance (BCA 2014: 25).

However, the report indicates a number of threats that may threaten our ability to compete in global education markets:

  • Australia’s performance is declining in core education measures such as maths, reading and scientific literacy over the past decade leading to a decline in international ranking for our education system (BCA 2014: 25).
  • In terms of issues in the Australian education system, the BCA note the weakness of our VET sector for supplying the future skills to maintain or grow our economy (BCA 2014: 12).
  • Australia is lagging behind other developed countries when it comes to research, ranked at 15 by the World Economic Forum Competitiveness Index, compared to 3rd for the US and 5th for the UK (BCA 2014: 27). This could be an future issue for attracting international students, as academic research has a direct impact on attracting international students, a point directly made in the McKinsey competitiveness report (McKinsey 2014: 32).Furthermore, there a number of recommendations in the report around structural reform of education, including linking research funding to industry collaboration instead of just incentivising having work published in highly ranked journals (BCA 2014: 52).

The BCA report concludes by stating that in order to continue to build Australia’s strength as a global exporter of international education services, Australia should look to implement to recommendations of the International Education Advisory Council which were published back in February 2013 in the Australia – Educating Globally report.

If you recall that report, you’ll recall that the report’s recommendations included specific ministerial level advisory groups on international education within government, as well as new approaches to tackle issues like affordable accommodation and a more diverse international student population.

McKinsey Australia: Compete to Prosper: Improving Australia’s global competitiveness

Turning to the report compiled by McKinsey Australia, the authors note that international education in Australia will face some key tests in the future as competition for a large future surplus of international mobile students becomes more and more fierce, particularly now since Australia is becoming a more expensive study destination – McKinsey Australia stating that Australia is now 8 percent more expensive than the US and 60 percent more expensive that Singapore (Lydon et al, 2014: 33).

McKinsey highlights an oversupply of 1.9 million student places worldwide in 2020 and notes the potential impact of MOOCs in attracting students to elite universities worldwide. The report makes two forecasts about the future of international education in Australia:

  • That government will have to create a more integrated strategy between education and immigration and deliver a more robust student experience (Lydon et al, 2014: 33).
  • Universities will have to rely on innovation and different modes of delivering content in order to avoid over capacity issues in the future (Lydon et al, 2014: 33).

Conclusions

Essentially both reports paint a good news story about the current state of Australia’s international education industry, but also suggest that in order to maintain our globally competitive export industry, the Australian government along with education providers must continue to support measures that attract international students. It would seem that taking our current position for granted may result in poor future performance and a loss of global market position.

References

Business Council of Australia. (2014). Building Australia’s Comparative Advantages (pp. 59).

Lydon, J., Dyer, D., & Bradley, C. (2014). Compete to Prosper: Improving Australia’s global competitiveness (pp. 67).

Links

Some initial concerns on selling uranium to India

Uranium mining is a particularly divisive topic in Australia. It was only ten years ago that news headlines were dominated by those protesting the development of a uranium mine at Jabiluka in the Northern Territory. However, yesterday, the Australian discourse surrounding uranium took an unexpected detour, with Prime Minister Julia Gillard openly courting the idea of selling uranium to India.

While Australia has been selling uranium to other states for some time, the significance of this move is that the Prime Minister is considering selling Australian uranium to a state who is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

For those not in the know, the NPT is the primary international agreement that seeks to control the sale of materials between states in an effort to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. True, it is lopsided, with non-nuclear weapon states (the vast majority) being prevented from developing nuclear weapons, while nuclear weapon states are obliged to pursue disarmament (though with no strict timetable). However, the agreement permits the trade of nuclear material between signatories for non-weapons ‘safe’ purposes such as energy.

However, India, along with Pakistan and Israel, are non-signatories, and therefore theoretically prevented from purchasing nuclear materials from states within the NPT regime. The first two are confirmed nuclear powers. Furthermore, India is not (yet) a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which places further exports control on the trade of nuclear material between signatories, which goes beyond the NPT.

I must confess that this sudden change in foreign policy is somewhat disturbing, arguably undermining Australia’s disarmament credentials, increasing tensions between nuclear powers in the region, all in favour of short-term domestic economic gains. It is true that other states signatories to the NPT, such as the United States, have opened up bilateral channels with India and have actively traded in nuclear technology with India over the past few years. However, I find this fact to be a less than convincing justification for an act that sets a dangerous precedent for Australia, a country that sits within a region with growing security concerns. I love India and I love Indians, but the ongoing friction between Pakistan and India, both armed with nuclear weapons, means that the possibility of nuclear exchange is a definite reality. This is something that might not be evident to Aussie Joe citizen given our relative isolation in the South Pacific.

Furthermore, if we’re going to sell to India, why don’t we also sell to Pakistan? Does it even open the possibility of selling to North Korea? Does it legitimise other countries with fewer scruples from supplying other states with nuclear material that could be used in nuclear weapons? Considering the worries over Iran’s clandestine nuclear program, the Prime Minister’s position on uranium sale should be thoroughly scrutinised, with its wider possible international implications teased out.

Some tweets from the PM yesterday, which sought to reassure concerned Australians about the safeguards, also seemed flimsy. She stated that India was the world’s largest democracy, inferring that this somehow acted as a safeguard. History shows otherwise, Julia. The only state to use a nuclear weapon in war was a democracy. Moreover, it is true that sections of the US politic recommended using strategic nuclear weapons against the VietCong during the Vietnam War. Democracy does not mean a nuclear muzzle.

It’s only the start of the debate, and I really need to learn more about the nuts and bolts of the proposed policy if it does eventuate. The Interpreter has an interesting piece arguing the other way, that selling uranium to India will actually bring Australia closer to the subcontinent. Still, there are risks, and the government need to explain the safeguards in detail to assure sceptics like myself.

Some closing questions that are of interest. Will the proposed sale of uranium to India harm Australia’s bid for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council? And how will this affect Australia’s relationship with Pakistan? Will it damage Australia’s disarmament creditials? How will China react? All pertinent questions that could be impacted by this new foreign policy angle.