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

Tableau tricks: Adding colour to geomaps by continent or region

Tableau is a great tool for data visualisation. One major selling point of the product is its excellent mapping tools which make building visualisation fun and interpreting data a hell of a lot easier than in a flat table.

Recently, I was attempting to replicate a neat visualisation I saw on the Guardian’s data blog. Simply put, I wanted to measure some data by country but colour code the data by region as well. A trip through Tableau’s detailed online help and forums only turned up solutions that were either way too complicated or not quite suited to what I was chasing.

Essentially, I just wanted to map a variable by country and then colour those variables by the continent or region the country belong to. So, for example, all data points that represented a country in Asia got a particular colour, whereas any data points in the Americas got a different colour again.

I’ll freely admit that my skills in Tableau are developing. I spent about a day researching the issue until I stumbled across obvious help in the Tableau mapping tutorial. The dominoes began falling in my head around the 13 minute mark of this Tableau help video and I could complete my task.

The solution is remarkably easy.

First bring across the variable you want to measure in Tableau on a geomap. Using Tableau’s example Superstore dataset, I’ve brought the state variable across into the main view.

Second, you just need to simply need to drag across the variable you want to colour by. Using the same Superstore example, I’ll drag region on to the colour mark.

Now, you should see the different regions of the United States distinguished by different colours.

From there, you can then do all sorts of fun things like adjust the size of the bubbles by other variables. I just have to move the appropriate variable from the data pane on to the size option in the marks pain.

Here’s me using the sales variable to control the size of the circles above (also I’ve put a border on the circles for aesthetic reasons).

Now, to do this in terms of global data, you simply need a way to link countries with regions. If you have a dataset with a variable like countries, all you need to do is map those countries to a region and include that data in your Tableau project. This can easily be done using a standard UN country/region dataset.

Philip Burger has handily made one suitable for Tableau available via his website (nice one Phil!).

Importing the dataset into my Tableau project means I can link it up with my source data and begin the process of making a cool looking geomap visualisation similar to the one used in The Guardian example above.

Linking my tableau output data to the UN data set based on country. I’ve used a LEFT JOIN meaning all data in my source table is outputted and only matching country names are returned in the UN dataset.

And voila, by using the technique above, I can make nice looking geographical maps like the image below.

Pretty neat, huh?

 

 

Time to embrace data-driven decision making in Australian international higher education

Hi all, this is an older article from 2015 where I presented on the topic of data-driven decision making in Australian international higher education. It’s slightly out of date now, but I’ve published it for posterity’s sake. Originally published in October 2015.

***

Somewhat ironically, I went with my gut-feeling when I argued that most international divisions in higher education in Australia were not making best use of the massive amount of data that our universities and educators have on international student mobility at the 2015 Australian International Education Conference (AIEC) held in Adelaide last week.

Fortunately, no one called me out on that slight bit of hypocrisy. In my defence, I had done some qualitative research on how Australian higher education institutions in international education used business analytics. I had spent a good part of the last fortnight interviewing many business intelligence colleagues around the country, whose day-to-day involve stewing up porridge of statistics, trends and reports on international student movements and management, seeing what they thought about how institutions used their skills and abilities.

While it does seem that there are different levels of maturity of business intelligence support and skills, a general theme rang through all my conversations: that, by and large, international higher education in Australia uses its business intelligence resources for achieving operational results. That is, analytics professionals are used to run reports, publish statistics, create charts and visualisations, usually in a descriptive fashion. Essentially, these resources are devoted to answering ‘what has happened’ and ‘what is happening right now’ type questions.

Now, don’t get me wrong, these are very important questions for a university to answer when it comes to a globally competitive market like international education. But as we see in other very mature analytics industries, such as banking and finance, analytics is capable of being an extremely valuable tool for solving strategic problems.

There is an excellent book by Davenport and Harris called “Competing on Analytics: The New Science of Winning” that essentially argues that those organisations that are successful in certain markets where other competitors are failing are nearly certainly winning by basing their decisions using an analytical and data-driven approach to strategic problem-solving. “Good decisions usually have systematically assembled data and analysis behind them,” Davenport and Harris (2007: 9) argue.

The key is a change in mindset. Institutions and businesses should be thinking about what sources of data or information could be useful in solving business problems. They should be thinking about how they can leverage sources of private and public data to create efficiencies in their practice. Australian international higher education should be thinking about data as a method for answering question like “what will happen?” Such a mindset will inevitably lead to better outcomes for individual institutions, but also raise the bar when it comes to competing with overseas education powerhouses such as the United States, the UK, Canada, and up-and-coming educational hubs such as China.

Say you’ve got a problem with identifying new market opportunities. Your strategy calls for new methods of quickly locating and evaluating new geographical areas for potential international students. Analytics can help. You could ask your BI professional to investigate your data set for key variables that may influence enrolment outcomes. You could segment or break up your data to check where you’ve had a lot of success in the past and use that information to apply it to candidate markets. Really – the devil is in the data.

What I’m trying to say here is that data-driven decision making mindset has a lot to offer international education in terms of driving strategy. You’re not making best use of your resources should you simply rely on analytics to fulfil only operational objectives.

If you’re in a jam when it comes to marking a strategic decision, perhaps give your analytics department a ring (assuming you have one – if not, really you should be seriously looking at that issue!). It might be the best decision you’ve ever made!

[1] Davenport, T. Harris, J (2007), “Competing on Analytics”, Harvard Business School Press, Boston, MA.

IIE release next iteration of Open Doors data

It’s International Education Week in the United States and that has prompted the Institute of International Education (“IIE”), America’s premier professional association for international education research, to release the next iteration of the Open Doors report. For those in the know, the Open Doors report is a vital tool for measuring the flow of students around the world. While heavily US focused it’s nonetheless an excellent tool for examining student flows – even from Australia.

I’ve picked out some quotations from the press release of interest.

IIE has also highlighted how the US administration view international education as a vehicle in which to solve future problems:

“International education is crucial to building relationships between people and communities in the United States and around the world. It is through these relationships that together we can solve global challenges like climate change, the spread of pandemic disease, and combating violent extremism,” said Evan M. Ryan, Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs.

Things are interesting from a data point of view as well:

The number of international students enrolled in U.S. higher education increased by eight percent to 886,052 students in 2013/14, with 66,408 more students than last year enrolled in colleges and universities across the United States. This marks the eighth consecutive year that Open Doors reported expansion in the total number of international students in U.S. higher education. There are now 72 percent more international students studying at U.S. colleges and universities than were reported in Open Doors 2000, and the rate of increase has risen steadily for the past four years.

It seems that Australia isn’t as golden as once was in attracting US study abroad students

There were declines in the number of American students going to China, Australia, Argentina, India, Mexico, Ecuador, Israel, Chile, and New Zealand.

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.