10 June 2019
An independent report by BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, (BCS) says in order to bridge the skills gap in Artificial Intelligence, (AI) more must be done to attract and retain under-represented groups in university computing departments, especially women.
BCS, as the professional body for the digital industries, was commissioned by the government’s Office for AI to carry out an independent review - Scaling Up The Ethical Artificial Intelligence MSc Pipeline - into what could be done to tackle the severe shortage of AI practitioners. These graduates will need to have the necessary ethical skills base to meet the country’s needs, estimated to be at least 3000 such MSc graduates every year based on its own AI review.
The report involved extensive consultation with more than 50 universities, blue-chip companies including ARM, BAE Systems, IBM, Deloitte, BT Technology and Microsoft, along with the Institute of Coding, the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Office for Students and several government departments such as DCMS and DfE.
In order to achieve an increase in AI MSc students to the 3,000 that the Government recognises is needed, the report looked at several possible strategies, such as adopting good practices for improving diversity that are already being proposed in other, related fields such as engineering. The report states “there is a growing body of evidence-based solutions that could help with this issue: we recommend that they are implemented as a matter of urgency.”
The report also recommends that university departments should sign up to recognised standards, such as the Athena SWAN Charter, with the aim that all computing departments should achieve that award or equivalent. The Charter recognises and celebrates good practices in higher education and research institutions towards the advancement of gender equality.
The report says the needs of students should be addressed to ensure they stay on their AI courses and it suggests “support is made inclusive by providing students from all backgrounds equal access to an extensive, high quality and properly resourced range of professional development, networking and mentoring opportunities.”
The report examines what could be done to recruit students from the arts and humanities onto AI MSc courses. It suggests this could be achieved by undergraduates learning about, for instance, quantitative methods as part of a BA in social sciences, as this knowledge could then be expanded upon with a tailor-made MSc AI conversion course.
The BCS report states “university computing departments should partner with, and recruit from, undergraduate programmes producing large numbers of female graduates and others from other under-represented groups.”
Another finding was that employers’ preferred students to develop AI related professional skills through extensive work experience, which is then assessed against industry recognised standards.
As many universities reported that adding lengthy placements, such as for nine months, to an already existing one year MSc course would be challenging, an alternative, preferred by most large employers would be industry-funded AI MSc courses, delivered through level 7 degree apprenticeships and paid for through the apprenticeship levy.
The report warns however, that in order for progress towards achieving the government’s target it will need “concerted collaboration from universities, employers, professional bodies, the Office for Students, Department for Education, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the Office for AI, the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Institute of Coding, the Alan Turing Institute, the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation and other relevant stakeholders.”
Dr Bill Mitchell, Director of Policy at BCS, and author of the report said:
“Our conclusion is that whilst we as a nation have the capacity and capability to make this happen, it’s going to need us to work together to achieve sufficient scale. It’ll need innovation from universities and employers in how they equip graduates with both professional skills and academic knowledge. It’s going to mean getting serious about resolving gender diversity, and it’s going to need our profession to be very clear about the ethical and professional standards that are expected from AI practitioners. It’s a big challenge, but we at BCS very much look forward to helping implement scalable, sustainable solutions to these challenges.”
Scaling Up The Ethical Artificial Intelligence MSc Pipeline was released today as the government also announced a major further investment in AI skills - up to an extra 2,500 people will have the opportunity to retrain and become experts in data science and Artificial Intelligence (AI), thanks to a £13.5 million investment to fund new degree and Masters conversion courses and scholarships at UK academic institutions over the next three years, designed to enhance diversity.
Digital Secretary Jeremy Wright said:
“The UK has a long standing reputation for innovation, world-leading academic institutions and a business friendly environment and everyone, regardless of their background, should have the opportunity to build a successful career in our world-leading tech sector.
“Through these new AI and Data Conversion courses and our modern Industrial Strategy, we are committed to working with the tech sector and academia to develop and maintain the best AI workforce in the world.”
The scholarships will be made available to support applications from diverse backgrounds. This could include people returning to work after a career break and looking to retrain in a new profession; under-represented groups in the AI and digital workforce, including women and people from minority ethnic backgrounds; or lower socio-economic backgrounds.
Dr Mitchell said: “We welcome the government’s announcement today, as it chimes well with the findings of our report. When it comes to scholarships our report also noted that employers back them because they are flexible, innovative and particularly helpful at attracting people from under-represented groups, especially women.”