University student in lecture, smiling

Tech to take you to the top – Microsoft courses will tackle the UK’s digital skills gap one student at a time

Students will be able to study for qualifications in artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and data science alongside their chosen subject as part of a new higher education initiative from Microsoft.

The technology company has teamed up with the University of London, Staffordshire University and the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), as well as two institutions in the US, to offer courses that will help young people learn key digital skills that they can use throughout their career.

The move is designed to tackle the digital skills gap across the UK, which risks holding back businesses in all sectors.

The Microsoft technical skills programme contains nine self-study courses, which have been created and are taught online by experts – Data Analysis, Data Science, Big Data, Cybersecurity, DevOps, IT Support, Internet of Things, AI and Entry Level Software Development. Each course teaches students about some of the most popular programs in use today, including Microsoft Excel, Power BI, Python, SQL Server, JavaScript, CSS and Azure.

The three UK institutions are integrating the courses in different ways to ensure they have the most impact on their students. The University of London is integrating an entire course into its Master’s in Data Science, so that students can learn the digital skills that employers need. In the data science course, for example, they will “learn how to apply technology to real-world problems and gain an understanding of emerging technologies, statistical analysis and computational techniques” as well as “transferable skills that will help advance your career”. Students will get support from tutors or online tutor groups.

Mary Stiasny, Pro-Vice Chancellor at University of London, said: “Our mission at the University of London is to develop internationally aware, innovative and employable graduates. Our online MSc Data Science programme encourages them to explore ideas, challenge boundaries and investigate fresh ways of thinking. For this reason, we are particularly excited about our collaboration with Microsoft for its potential to help our students meet and exceed the changing needs of the 21st century workplace.”

Staffordshire University is encouraging students to study individual modules that complement their degrees. Someone studying fashion design, for example, could take a web development course, so they can learn to build a website to sell their clothes.

Helen Holt, Head of Partnering and Digital Skills at Staffordshire University, said: “It’s important that we’re offering all our students the chance to learn digital skills and help them stand out in the workplace. The Microsoft Professional Programme will help them do that.

“Our lecturers and students like that there is a range of content in these courses and they can pick and choose what works for them. Our students are telling us they want digital skills. They might be good with tablets and phones but they might not know how to use Excel, and they want to learn how.

Female student sitting on stairs at university campus

The courses will help young people learn digital skills that they can use throughout their career

“We are based in Stoke-on-Trent and some of our students are the first generation of their families to go to university. Alongside specialist knowledge gained through their courses, they are learning digital skills that are recognised globally.”

LSE is encouraging students to study the courses, but it will be optional for them. It has been piloting Python and Excel courses over the past few months, with dozens of students gaining qualifications and giving positive feedback to teachers.

Jeni Brown, Head of Digital Skills Lab at the LSE, said: “The courses align really well with what we are doing at LSE, as they focus on the range of skills people will need in these roles rather than just the technologies. Students and staff have told us they want more opportunities to develop their skills in areas such as AI, big data and data science, to complement and enhance their academic programmes.

“The content is high quality and we can use it in a number of ways. Our students can study the courses independently online but we can also embed modules into what we already deliver. More than 60% of our students have come to LSE from outside the UK, and they will take those skills around the world. We want to create social science graduates who can really engage with a world that is becoming more immersed in technology and who understand how it impacts on their particular field.”

According to US Department of Labor, 65% of today’s students will end up working in jobs that don’t exist yet. Separate research has found that 808 million people need to learn new skills for their jobs by 2020, 40% of employers said skill shortages have a negative impact on their business, and 50 million people are needed to fill open, technical jobs by 2030.

Karen Kocher, General Manager of 21st Century Jobs, Skills and Employability at Microsoft, said: “The incredible transformation we’re witnessing in the 21st century workplace calls out for key organizations – governments, higher education institutions, employers, the non-profit sector – to step up and work together to teach, train and prepare workers for the jobs of tomorrow. This is a crucial part of our purpose at Microsoft and we are proud to join forces with seminal, global learning institutions to help make good on that purpose.”

The Microsoft technical skills programme, delivered by Fast Lane, will also be run at Bellevue College, near Seattle, and the online-based Purdue University Global, with Microsoft hoping to agree more collaborations in the future.