Gernot Krautberger - stock.adobe
While Rishi Sunak may not be the first prime minister to do so, he has recently made clear his intentions to position the UK as a global tech superpower by 2030. Up-and-coming areas, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and quantum computing, will be a particular focus.
To reinforce the point, chancellor Jeremy Hunt pointed out at the end of last year that his Edinburgh [financial] Reforms were designed to help the country become the world’s next Silicon Valley.
But the latest Global skills report by online learning vendor Coursera has revealed a significant problem the country has consistently failed to address. The UK is plummeting down the global skills proficiency ratings, sliding from 38th place last year to 64th this year. This situation is leading to shortages of the very expertise the prime minister requires if he is to realise his ambitions.
In fact, according to digital services consultancy Nash Squared’s Digital leadership report, this lack of available talent means that a huge seven out of 10 digital leaders are now unable to keep up with tech trends. Their businesses are being held back in growth terms as a result.
In a bid to address this worrying shortfall, a quarter of leaders are currently looking outside of the UK for tech talent – although the figure is low compared to other European countries where the average is more like 36%.
But their cause does not appear to be helped by recent government plans to increase immigration costs this autumn. For example, the cost of work visas will go up by 15% and the Immigration Health Surcharge by even more. This will jump from £625 to £1,035 per year for each worker and family member entering the country for six months or more. In the case of under-18s, fees will increase from £470 to £776.
The likelihood of global tech domination
So, in light of these dynamics, just how achievable are the government’s aims? According to William Webb, chief technology officer at public policy consultancy the Access Partnership, they are “almost certainly not”.
“The chances of achieving anything like becoming a significant global player look very slim,” he says. “And with vague statements like, ‘We’ll become a global tech capital’, there’s also the issue of how you know if you are one – you can be a leader in one area, but you won’t necessarily be in another.”
Another challenge is that government policy does not appear to be helpful to furthering its cause in a number of areas. For instance, as a significant purchaser of technology, it could opt to introduce a “smart government procurement” programme in fields, such as healthcare, defence and smart cities.
“If the government placed a big contract with UK companies for internet of things technology, for example, it would help a lot in terms of the country becoming a smart hub,” Webb says. “The problem is that most government procurement is about buying what’s cheapest to save taxpayers’ money, but it’s a missed opportunity.”
Challenging the status quo
Other areas ripe for change include the UK tax regime, the red tape involved in setting up a new business and the difficulties involved in obtaining funding. So, the aim of such change would be to encourage inward investment and the growth of startup and scaleup companies in a more effective fashion than is the case today.
For example, Paul Drew, founder and managing director of tech apprenticeship provider Apprentify, points to the need for more significant tax breaks to encourage tech companies to relocate to the UK in a similar way that they moved to Ireland 30 years ago. But he also believes that more needs to be done to stimulate appropriate skills development.
“We’re nowhere near being the next Silicon Valley – and dropping down the skills tables year on year doesn’t help,” he says. “The lack of investment over the past few years has affected the UK directly and you can’t change things overnight, or even over a few years – there’s at least a generation of change required.”
In the meantime though, the ongoing science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) skills shortage is estimated to cost the UK economy £1.5bn per year, according to a report by the Campaign for Science and Engineering called The skills opportunity: building a more innovative UK.
“The UK has to invest more in skills development,” Drew says. “There’s a brain drain going on in the UK because the country isn’t as attractive as it was 10 years ago. So, people are going to places like the Middle East, the Far East and Australia as wages are better and they’re frustrated with the lack of investment in infrastructure and technology here.”
Moreover, says Webb, the skills issue cannot be solved by immigration alone. Instead, it is necessary to create more STEM-related university places that people are incentivised to take up using grants. Just as important is supporting more vocational training in the form of apprenticeships and skills bootcamps.
The need for an image and strategy change
Another crucial piece of the puzzle though is finding ways to change the image of STEM subjects, which include tech.
As Webb says: “STEM subjects aren’t seen as particularly attractive. If you ask someone what they want to become, it’s a doctor or lawyer or social media influencer, but the perception of engineers is of people who fix washing machines rather than of people who develop the software that runs a nuclear reactor. It’s not aspirational.”
Another problem is the relatively small number of individuals engaging with STEM subjects. “[As a result] you can’t peel off enough people to teach and enthuse the next generation, so it’s a vicious circle. This means something substantive has to be done to break the circle and turn it the other way,” says Webb.
Read more about UK tech skills
One thing that could help significantly here, he believes, would be if an appropriate government minister took a strategic, long-term approach to the entire skills issue. The traditional tactic has been to simply “tinker around the edges” by launching a new initiative that overlaps with the old ones, which often leads to confusion.
But because such initiatives have been neither broad enough nor joined-up enough, they have so far failed to get to the nub of the issue. Hiring an independent person or team to investigate the problem and come up with a legally binding framework for change could make a “substantial difference” , Webb says.
“We need something that isn’t just a quick fix, but involves someone standing back and weighing up what’s really going on,” he adds. “But it would require a 10 to 15-year focus and more than just sound bites, because unfortunately you can’t just wave a magic wand with this kind of thing.”
BCS takes a longer-term view
One organisation that is trying to take just such a long-term, strategic view is the BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT. In its opinion, trying to compete with, or become an also-ran of, Silicon Valley is not the answer. Instead, another approach is required.
As a result, its aim is to launch a new brand and related campaign, internally code-named Coded in Britain, which will be synonymous with quality and trust. The concept is not dissimilar to the Made in Britain movement, which was launched in 2011 to promote British manufacturing both at home and abroad.
Rashik Parmar, the BCS’ chief executive, says: “As digitisation has progressed, trust in IT has declined due to things like data breaches and the Post Office Horizon case. But therein lies the big opportunity – we can become the digitisers that represent something different to the rest of the world.”
A key point to bear in mind here, he says, is that “either we become the digitisers, or someone else will come in and digitise us”. But the UK’s big differentiator as such a digitiser is that it will consciously adopt a Responsible Computing approach, which involves being ethical, trustworthy, green and sustainable.
“It’s about being competent in your role and ethical and inclusive in how you do it,” Parmar points out. “So, you ensure technologies aren’t built by the bro culture, but for all humanity, and you hold people to account using an ethical framework.”
If the country can show it is taking such an approach seriously, he adds: “Coded in Britain can stand for responsible computing and we can put clear water between us and others in being digitisers for the world – it’s how we become a powerhouse of digitisation.”
Coding in Britain under development
To this end, the BCS is working with the Royal Academy of Engineering, which has done a lot of work on ethical engineering and practice, and the Alan Turing Institute, among others. The institute is undertaking much research into AI, which includes ethical AI.
But it is still very early days, with “work only just kicking off”. Parmar explains: “It’s not that well thought through as yet, but there’s been a lot of deep work by thought leaders on this. This approach is unique, but it is in the development stage, and we’ll start to see the first fruits early next year.”
One idea under discussion is creating a Professionalism Index, among others. Such an index would be used to measure existing levels of professionalism within the industry at the company, city, regional and national level. It would also act as a yardstick to encourage further development and help to build and disseminate best practice among the BCS’ 70,000 members.
One early example of putting Coded in Britain ideas into action though is the government’s AI Safety Summit on 1-2 November. The aim of the summit is to obtain international agreement on what constitutes the safe and responsible development and use of AI – quietly signalling the Coded in Britain in the process.
The government’s Pro-innovation approach to AI regulation whitepaper, which was launched in March, is another area in which there has been collaboration with the BCS. Conversations have taken place not only with advisers within the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT), but with Paul Scully, the minister for tech and the digital economy.
A key part of the wider puzzle is undoubtedly the skills agenda though, Parmar believes. This, he says, consists of three key elements:
- Digital literacy across the population: Here the BCS has championed the creation of the computing curriculum for schools and is working with the Digital Poverty Alliance to support people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
- Building professional-level digital skills: This is about infusing such skills not just into computer science degrees but also into others, such as science and history, as well as into apprenticeships. It is also about boosting the numbers and the quality of digital professionals by encouraging them to undertake professional qualifications and certifications.
- Furthering the digital research agenda: Working with relevant third-party bodies, this involves collaborating with universities to develop the research agenda more effectively.
As to whether the government is getting its own approach to skills right, meanwhile, Parmar says: “Six months ago, I would have said the government was confused and struggling to understand.”
But now, he believes: “It is trying to help. The BCS has the royal charter around the computing agenda so it’s incumbent on us to be the convenor and director of strategy. Is the government getting in the way of that? No – it’s trying to do the best it can with a broad, complex agenda.”
A key challenge it faces though is an inability to execute strategy from the centre as local skills agendas vary across the country. These are catered to by Local Digital Skills Partnerships, which bring together public, private and third sector organisations.
“So, a lot is done at the local level, which is why it looks chaotic, but it’s carefully stewarded from the centre by DSIT,” Parmar says.
He also acknowledges that realising the Coded in Britain aims is inevitably a long-term rather than short-term goal. “It’s not necessarily a full generation’s work, but it will be more than 10 years before we see a big impact. But if we don’t take action, this current generation will miss out, so it’s imperative that we start now,” he concludes.
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