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The next Government must ensure the UK’s universities come out on top for AI

In today’s AI arms race, the UK has several trump cards that keep it at the front of the pack. A strong financial services industry provides capital to grease the startup ecosystem and London’s status as a global hub draws in talented tech graduates and workers from around the world.

But the keystone of the UK’s tech sector is its higher education. UK universities, especially in the ‘golden triangle’ between the Universities of Cambridge, Oxford, as well as UCL and Imperial in London, are lightning rods of innovation and investment, pumping out startups and spinouts that go on to become global players.

The UK’s higher education system has laid the foundations for success in the AI era. But there’s a host of competitors nipping at their heels, shaking up their education systems and offering innovative tech-driven courses. If the UK’s leading educational institutions aren’t careful, then they’ll soon lose their crown to other, more innovative universities, in countries like the UAE, China, and Israel.

This challenge should be at the top of the in-tray for the likely next Minister for Higher Education, Matthew Western. AI is currently sending investors into a frenzy. If the UK slips out of the AI pack, it will lose the chance to use this investment to supercharge the broader tech sector. After inheriting an ailing economy, the Labour government cannot afford to miss this opportunity.

The UK is currently riding high after a string of successes, built off the back of its universities. Wayve, a scaleup that builds software for AI-powered autonomous vehicles, recently secured Europe’s largest-ever fundraise of $1.05bn led by Softbank, Nvidia, and Microsoft, was spun out from the University of Cambridge.

The torrent of AI investment is showing no signs of slowing down – the UK will find itself awash with external capital if its higher education can continue producing innovative startups like Wayve. But other countries want a chunk of this cash, and are muscling into the AI space.

The UAE founded a whole university, the Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence (MBZUAI), in 2019 to power its AI sector. Chinese universities are standardising the use of AI for academic writing, and integrating compulsory AI modules.

With these competitors jostling for position, the UK’s universities need to start innovating their educational offerings. The next Minister for Universities must push these institutions to integrate AI more thoroughly. It’s not enough to just offer one-off AI courses – instead, AI must form the foundation for the entire higher educational system.

The next Minister for Universities must push these institutions to integrate AI more thoroughly. Quote

The first stage of this should be surgical government support to incentivise universities to develop AI-first programmes, research initiatives, and infrastructure. The new Minister for Universities must roll out grants for AI research projects and fund scholarships and fellowships to attract the top researchers to UK institutions. Supporting universities’ investment in the hard technological infrastructure in advanced computational facilities is also critical.

The new Minister must also take the lead in promoting the integration of AI into curricula across existing traditional courses and pioneering new AI-specific programmes. Government guidelines to universities can help them establish AI as a foundation that underpins a wide range of disciplines, ensuring that as many students as possible are exposed to AI from a multitude of different interdisciplinary angles.

Finally, the Department for Education can start to build a more supportive environment in the limbo zone between university research and commercialisation – where most startups flounder. Supporting incubators and accelerators that focus on AI startups will help founders bring their products to market. The wider government can also ensure that policies and regulations foster rather than inhibit startups and offer guidance on navigating the fluid field of AI regulation, especially internationally in the context of the stringent EU AI Act.

The challenges facing the new Department for Education are numerous. It’s right that the Labour government will fix its attention on the politicised issue of schooling. But it’s vital to the UK’s economy that higher education doesn’t slip through the net.

The UK’s universities are engines of much-needed economic growth in the AI era – the government forgets this at its peril. Other nations have recognised this potential and taken steps to carve out a bigger slice of the investment that’s flooding the AI sector. If the UK wants to continue to cash in, then it needs to sow the seeds for future AI innovation – and this means putting AI at the top of the higher education agenda.

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Dan Thomson is CEO and Founder of Sensay, a tech start-up that enables individuals to create AI-powered replicas of themselves and others. A serial entrepreneur, he has a track-record of launching, scaling, and exiting businesses across various sectors.

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