School of Mathematics, Statistics & Computer Science

Statistics staff with Postgraduate Diploma in Data Science graduates (front row from left): Ms Fathima Ally, Ms Nontsikelelo Pam Sosibo, Ms Sumeshini Moodley, Ms Sanera Maharaj, and Mr Mohammed Uzayr Akubaraly.

UKZN Meets Industry Need for Data Scientists

UKZN has graduated its first postgraduate cohort of Data Scientists – with six students awarded Postgraduate Diplomas in Data Science and a further five earning MSc degrees.

‘The PGDip and Masters in Data Science programmes were conceptualised in 2016 and launched in 2021,’ explained senior lecturer in Statistics and coordinator of the Data Science programmes, Dr Danielle Roberts. ‘These qualifications are taught postgraduate degrees that are aligned to the Data Science needs of business and industry. They provide graduates in Statistics/Computer Science with the opportunity to further their studies in the fast-changing world of data.’

Professors Delia North and Temesgen Zewotir conceptualised the bouquet of Data Science degrees at UKZN a number of years ago. North, the former Dean and Head of the School of Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science, said that the degrees were infused by knowledge gained following a 2016 visit to a number of universities in the US who had successfully linked their PhD taught Data Science programmes to business and industry, including the University of Cincinnati, the University of North Carolina and Kennesaw State University.

‘These postgraduate degrees are central to the Data Science Unit for Business and Industry at UKZN, which is linked to the SAS Global Academic Programme,’ said North.

North and Zewotir have national and international profiles in Data Science and Data Analytics, evidenced by both being elected members of the International Statistics Institute (ISI). They contribute at many levels to international sub-committees and focus groups, including the ISI Data Science Committee, the ISI Association for Statistics Education and the ISI Capacity Building Committee. They further contribute to Data Science initiatives on the continent and nationally, evidenced by being elected as SA Stats Association National Thought Leader 2022 (North) and Africa Centre of Excellence for Data Science (Zewotir).

‘Graduates in Statistics and Computer Science are highly sought after by business and industry, resulting in many potential postgraduate students being lost to the Institution,’ explained North. ‘The taught PGDip and Master’s degrees in Data Science were designed to give these graduates an opportunity to study part-time, whilst doing their project modules (a major part of each of these degrees) on a topic from their workplace.’

North said that the postgraduate diploma was designed to cater for the general Science/Commerce/Engineering graduate who did not have the profile required to enter the Masters in Data Science. ‘It gives them an opportunity for catch-up and then further study in advanced Data Analytics, if they have at least two years’ experience with data in the workplace.’

She added that the PGDip Data Science degree attracted a tremendous response as many applicants realised the value of high-end data analytics in the fast-changing world of data, and the PGDip takes them to level 4 data analytics needs in the current data era.

Applications for the two postgraduate offerings rocketed from 40 in 2021 to 80 in 2022 and an astounding 143 for 2023.

‘The PGDip has had the majority of the applications,’ said North. ‘We have had to turn away applicants. All of the students in our PGDip programme have full-time jobs, but do the programme to upskill or to be able to move into the Data Science industry.’ She added that many of the students’ studies are funded by their employer.

Roberts commented that the course adds real-life value as students are exposed to a range of analytical data science skills that are relevant to industry. ‘They receive advanced training in a variety of software that allows them to adapt to any industry,’ she said. ‘In both the PGDip and master’s programmes, students are required to do an industry project where they are expected to use a data-driven approach to solve a real-world problem. This gives them the hands-on experience needed for the workplace.

‘We have had a lot of positive feedback from our students who have been able to apply the skills they learnt in the programme within their workplace, thereby adding value in their current positions and enhancing their careers.’

North noted that whilst a handful of other South African universities are now offering similar programmes, UKZN’s is the most affordable and in addition is coupled with quality teaching. ‘We have had many requests to share our Data Science initiatives, which address the full spectrum of data analytics needs.’

Roberts added that a further aspect of the link with industry is a feeder programme to the Masters in Data Science, namely a BSc degree majoring in Data Science. ‘This is a grouping of specific modules (two years of Mathematics, and three years of Statistics and Computer Science), which forms the base for study in the direction of the postgraduate Data Science degrees. Furthermore, it provides an opportunity for other Science majors to develop Data Science degrees, using the BSc Data Science as a base.’

In addition to the 11 postgraduate conferrals, a further 24 graduates were awarded their undergraduate BSc degrees in Data Science at the 2023 graduation ceremonies (the second class to graduate, 2022 being the first year UKZN awarded this particular degree). The figures show that the BSc Data Science degree has had a very significant effect in attracting top school leavers in the catchment area to UKZN – no less than a quarter of the BSc Data Science class of 2023 graduated summa cum laude!

Words: Sally Frost

Photograph: Abhi Indrarajan