UK government announces £8m AI scholarship fund

In the latest chapter of the UK’s bid to become a leader in AI safety, the government has announced funding to equip eligible students with essential AI skills.

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The government has announced the launch of 800 scholarships worth £8m to equip eligible students with practical AI and data science skills, including coding, programming, and AI ethics.

Launched by Technology Secretary Michelle Donelan, the scholarships are designed to boost support for universities in areas with lower levels of research and development and spread AI skills around the country.

The funding is part of a new £60m portion of the Regional Innovation Fund (RIF), which is spread out relative to the size of each UK nation.

Of the RIF funding, £48.8m will go towards 110 universities across England and will be delivered by Research England.

Amongst the devolved nations, £5.8m will be allocated to Scotland, £3.4m to Wales and £2m to Northern Ireland. The funding will be administered to support local and regional economies, their growth, and productivity.

Transforming the UK into an AI safety leader

The announcement follows the UK’s preparation to host the AI Safety Summit at the beginning of November. The summit will see academics, policy makers, and key industry names discuss the dangers embodied by frontier AI and design AI regulations.

Through these scholarships and discussions, the UK is striving to become a pioneer in AI policy and innovation, as well as continuing to foster the growth of its tech sector.

Currently, the UK has the third largest tech economy valued at £820bn, an achievement that is owed to the endeavours of tech startups.

In a recent speech at London’s CogX conference, Donelan highlighted the potential the UK has to be a leader in AI. She noted that since last year, the UK became one of just three countries with a tech sector worth over $1 trillion, behind only the US and China.

Bridging the AI skills gap

Despite these recent milestones, the UK is still handicapped by a digital skills gap that is complicating the recruitment of employees who are well versed in AI.

According to research by Salesforce, only one in ten global workers have in-demand artificial intelligence skills. Moreover, the digital skills gap is costing the UK economy a hefty £12.8bn.

“With AI adoption surging on a global scale, getting access to candidates fully equipped with the latest AI capabilities has been a major challenge for businesses,” explains Derek Mackenzie, CEO at Investigo, a global skills provider.

“This scholarship programme will be a huge boost for students seeking to further their knowledge in key areas like data science, coding, and programming and give businesses a wider talent pool of new candidates to hire and develop in the future,” he adds.

The skills gap has widened so far as to push recruiters to look overseas for qualified talent. According to figures from Google Trends, searches for ‘skilled worker visas’ – the type required to recruit non-UK resident workers– grew by 156% between January 2022 and 2023.

“With AI disrupting the marketplace and reshaping traditional job roles, it’s absolutely critical that the next generation are given every opportunity to gain access to qualifications in such an important technology,” stresses Josh Boer, director at tech consultancy VeUP.

“This funding will also be a huge boost for ambitious businesses, giving them access to a new wave of AI-equipped candidates to recruit and take their company forward.”

What SMEs really need to triumph with AI

Initiatives like these scholarships will be a welcome policy by startups that work in AI, given the difficulty of recruiting skilled talent.

According to data from the Department of Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT), 88% of the AI business population in the UK is made up of small (10-49 employees) or micro (1-9 employees) businesses.

Thus, any regulation or initiative set in place would need to consider the interests of AI startups, including greater access to public data to train AI systems and better R&D support.

“AI startups are the companies who are defining the future,” stresses Rafie Faruq, CEO and co-founder of legal startup Genie AI.

Written by:
Fernanda is a Mexican-born Startups Writer. Specialising in the Marketing & Finding Customers pillar, she’s always on the lookout for how startups can leverage tools, software, and insights to help solidify their brand, retain clients, and find new areas for growth. Having grown up in Mexico City and Abu Dhabi, Fernanda is passionate about how businesses can adapt to new challenges in different economic environments to grow and find creative ways to engage with new and existing customers. With a background in journalism, politics, and international relations, Fernanda has written for a multitude of online magazines about topics ranging from Latin American politics to how businesses can retain staff during a recession. She is currently strengthening her journalistic muscle by studying for a part-time multimedia journalism degree from the National Council of Training for Journalists (NCTJ).

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