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April 20, 2022updated 24 Jun 2022 10:27am

Businesses must ‘play their part’ in funding AI skills, says UK policy chief

The UK government hopes that businesses will pay for at least 25% of its postgraduate AI scholarship scheme.

By Sophia Waterfield

Businesses need to “play their part” in funding AI skills in the UK, a government policy chief said yesterday. Blake Bower, director of the Office for AI, said the government expects the private sector to contribute 25% of the cost of its AI postgraduate scholarship scheme.

Bower made the remarks at the Westminster eForum event on AI in the UK, after speakers raised concerns about an ongoing lack of skills. Tabitha Goldstaub, chair of the UK Artificial Intelligence Council, described the AI skills shortage as “rather bleak”.

AI skills UK
Postgraduate conversion courses in AI will help graduates shift from other disciplines to support the AI talent pipeline. (Photo by SolStock/iStock)

Earlier this year, the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) announced a second round of government-funded scholarships for graduates from non-traditional backgrounds to study ‘AI conversion courses’. Up to £23m would go towards funding 2,000 AI and data science masters’ degrees, it said.

At the time, DCMS said it was “encouraging companies to play their part in creating a future pipeline of AI talent by match-funding the AI scholarships for the conversion courses,” but did not specify how much private sector funding was expected.

Bower revealed yesterday that the government expects to provide up to 75% of the cost of the postgraduate conversion courses, and hopes that UK businesses will fund at least 25%. “For each scholarship that is supported by industry, the government is able to fund an additional three scholarships,” he explained.

Later this month, an independent “broker” organisation will be appointed to encourage industry participation and investment into the scheme. Businesses from “across the country and across all sectors,” including those that don’t consider themselves to be AI companies, will be encouraged to support the initiative, Bower said.

AI skills in the UK: ‘rather bleak’

AI skills are in high demand, according to research cited by Goldstaub. Based on a survey of 118 employers, including AI specialists, and 50 in-depth interviews, the DCMS-backed study found that two-thirds of companies expected their need for AI skills to increase.

But 35% said a lack of technical skills among employees had prevented them from achieving their business goals, and 49% said the same of external applicants. Meanwhile, more than 100,000 job openings in AI and data science were waiting to be filled, according to the study, which was published last year.

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More than 50% of respondents identified skill gaps in understanding the concepts of AI and algorithms (55%), programming skills and languages (52%), software and systems engineering (52%) and user experience (51%). There were also gaps in non-technical skills such as communication, awareness of AI bias and awareness of privacy or ethical issues.

“So, it’s rather bleak,” said Goldstaub.

AI skills in the UK: academic brain drain

High demand from the private sector could jeopardise academia’s ability to retain AI talent, other speakers warned. This could in turn jeopardise the development of new AI-powered healthcare solutions, said Antoniya Georgieva, associate professor at Nuffield Department of Women’s and Reproductive Health.

Georgieva leads a team researching how AI could prevent complications during labour that can result in babies dying or developing life-long disabilities. But academia cannot compete with the salaries offered by the private sector, she said, and a shortage of talent capable of developing clinical trials for the research limits the possibility of adoption. The alternative is to commercialise their research, Georgieva added, which could pose ethical risks to the project.

This view is shared by event chair Lord Clement-Jones, Liberal Democrat spokesperson for the digital economy in the House of Lords, who noted a “tension” between academia and industry. “If we’re not careful, we’re going to drain our academic community and that’s not going to go well,” he said.

Read more: Is India the next AI superpower?

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