Let’s build up the next generation of education researchers

Lucy Heady, ESSA CEO, writes about the need for the global education sector to share their data. In doing so, local researchers who understand the issues in their own countries can build a true story of how to improve education.

This blog is the second in our 'Data for Education' series.

Students and Professor Goski Alabi at Laweh University in Accra, Ghana Photo: Students and Professor Goski Alabi at Laweh University in Accra, Ghana

Have you ever had a performance review that really hit home? One where you felt maybe your manager could see into your soul? Mine came a few years ago. I had been called out for not doing enough to implement a new reporting system. In response I mumbled something about being under pressure with all the other things on my plate.

My manager looked me in the eyes and said, “the thing is Lucy, I know you, if you want to make something happen you can. You just didn’t care enough.” I had no come back. She was right. I hadn’t cared enough, but until that moment I had not seen that this was the problem.

If we, the global education sector, were to give ourselves a performance review, what is the thing we could make happen if only we cared enough? I point the finger at sharing data.

Data sharing has often been seen as a transparency issue but it is so much more; it is a sector-building issue.

Much is made of the need to build education research capacity in the Global South and yet we fail to invest in one of the simplest ways to do this: let us match scholars from countries in the Global South and their students, with the data sets they need to become experts in education research.

The last 15 years has seen an explosion in research and evaluation in education. We are convinced by the power of strong monitoring and assessment to contribute to effective education systems. Of course, the critic can point to how far we lag behind the health sector or how we are still finding the right mix of research methods to properly influence policy and practice, but no one can deny the progress in understanding impact.

What we have not cared about enough is sharing the raw data.

Data sets languish on the hard drives of academics, consultants and funders. In the best case scenario, they are rigorously analysed and published in an open-access journal but frequently they will be used to develop private reports that benefit only a paying client.

If data is only ever analysed by those who collect it, we miss out on the wealth of human imagination that could be brought to bear on it.

Different perspectives bring new thinking, new ways of combining data across studies, new research questions.

Anyone who has done a Master’s degree in a social science knows the pain of finding a good data set to analyse for their dissertation. We go where the data sets are. Data availability defines entire academic careers. Opening up data attracts the best minds to a discipline and increases access to those without the resources to collect primary data.

Last year Addis Ababa University hosted a meeting with the REAL Centre at Cambridge and the Centre for Global Development for African leaders in education research, based on findings from the African Education Research Database. Lack of access to datasets was highlighted by those attending as a major barrier to improving the discipline of education research on the continent and increasing influence with policy-makers.

There are lots of reasons why sharing data is hard: it costs money, data must be properly anonymized, academics are keen to harvest the publications they can before sharing further and so on. But none of these are killer problems if we care enough.

There are numerous examples of data repositories from the UK Data Archive to the Global Health Observatory which have set up approaches to access and governance that suit the needs of their communities.

The global crisis caused by COVID-19 changes the calculus again.

It unlikely that any new primary data will be collected for months and so all existing data has become even more precious. Many researchers and their students will have had their plans change. While many will be absorbed with responding to the crisis, there will also be many with analytical capacity to spare.

Let’s do what we can now to direct this spare capacity to the education sector and build up the next generation of education researchers.

As a first step, we would like to crowd-source a list of education data sets that are already available so that it is easier for interested researchers to access them.

The next blog in this series discusses how we can accelerate research on these data sets by scholars from sub-Saharan Africa and their students.

Now is the time to open up access to data sets in education, to release those spreadsheets from dusty hard drives. We can do this; we just need to care enough.


We are building a list of open access education data sets.

If you would like to add to this list, or contribute an idea to our blog series 'Doing more with Data' please email comms@essa-africa.org.