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Dowden: AI and data science conversion path open and diverse

DCMS says 2,500 places on university artificial intelligence and data science conversion courses – 1,000 targeted to produce more diversity in tech – are now open for application

The government and the Office for Students have announced that 2,500 places on artificial intelligence (AI) and data science conversion courses are now open to applicants.

Some 1,000 scholarships will be open to students from “under-represented backgrounds”, according to a statement from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

Oliver Dowden, DCMS secretary, said: “It is vital we increase diversity across our tech sector and give everyone with the aptitude and talent the opportunity to build a successful career. 

“This will help make sure artificial intelligence developed in the UK reflects the needs and make-up of society as a whole, which will also help mitigate the risk of biased technologies being developed.”

Funding has been allocated to 18 English universities, which, according to a DCMS statement, will deliver courses to a further 10 universities.

In the venture, the government is working with the Office for Students, an independent regulator that reports to the Department for Education and was established in 2017. Together, they have created a fund of up to £24m to support the scholarships. These are open to non-STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) graduates, as well as those with degrees in STEM subjects.

A year ago, in June 2019, the department announced a similar tranche of £13.5m funding for up to 2,500 AI and data science conversion courses for professionals who have degrees in other disciplines, as well as 1,000 scholarships. A DCMS spokesperson confirmed: “People can now apply for places on the courses. Last year, we just announced the funding.”

Chris Millward, director for fair access and participation at the Office for Students, said: “In recent years, we have seen significant and increasing demand for digital skills in a range of fields. It is critical that graduates from all backgrounds have equal opportunities to gain the skills that employers need.

“With new AI and data science conversion courses across the country, and scholarships available to students from under-represented backgrounds, this programme will both help tackle skills gaps and increase choice and opportunities for all students.”

Mark Martin, co-founder of UK BlackTech, added: “The new AI and data science courses and scholarships will help boost uptake of these technologies across the country. It is important that we encourage more home-grown talent from different backgrounds to access these opportunities so that we can develop better tech tools, services and organisations that truly reflect our nation.”

A total of 1,000 places will be targeted at women, black people and disabled people. The DCMS statement cited statistics from a Tech Nation and Royal Society report that showed women make up only 19% of the technology workforce, and that people from a black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) background represent just 4%.

The UK government’s AI skills champion, Wendy Hall, said: “These conversion courses and the scholarships attached demonstrate the importance we place on diversity and talent.”

The courses will involve paid work placements, and the Office for Students will run a national online student recruitment campaign to promote them. 

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