With the AI Safety Summit under way at Bletchley Park, the Royal Academy of Engineering warns that a digital and engineering skills shortage could prevent the UK from meeting its ambitions to be a global leader in Artificial Intelligence (AI).
AI is set to revolutionise many aspects of our lives, including medicine, transport, and finance and with it will come an increasing global demand for software engineers, computer programmers and database modellers. An AI-ambitious UK will need to grow its own expertise but recent data shows there are not enough young people choosing digital and computing subjects to fulfil the government’s plan.
In 2023, 90,000 students took GCSE Computer Science, which equates to about 15% of the UK’s total 16-year-old population; the remaining 85% will have had no formal education in computer science since the age of 14, and the vast majority will never study computing again. At A level, computer science may be among the fastest growing subjects, but the 16% year-on-year growth represents an increase of just 2,600 pupils or one half of one per cent of the total cohort. In fact, only 18,000 students in the UK chose to continue their computer science studies to A level. Computer science is the 15th ranked A level subject by entries – about mid-table in the major subjects league. Further on in education the potential AI talent pool gets even smaller: only 5% of the UK’s undergraduates in 2022 started computing-related degrees such as computer science, software engineering, artificial intelligence and information technology.
The Academy has also warned that these numbers mask a severe diversity challenge. Girls make up just 21% of the GCSE Computer Science cohort and, at A level, young women are even less represented at 15%. Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups are well represented at 37%, particularly people from Asian backgrounds. However, students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, as measured by eligibility for free school meals, represent just 7% of the A level cohort. This lack of diversity risks the development of AI systems that have built-in bias and are not inclusive of the wider society they are meant to serve.
One solution is to help young people appreciate the exciting career opportunities that computer science and AI have to offer and the Royal Academy of Engineering is addressing this through its digital This is Engineering campaign, showing young people the many diverse and exciting career opportunities in software engineering and computing, design, space, future materials and other creative sectors. The charity’s National Engineering Day on 1 November 2023 aims to challenge narrow perceptions of engineering, reminding the wider public (including teachers and parents) that we all possess ‘engineering’ skills such as curiosity, problem solving and creativity and that engineers are people who followed what they love – whether that’s trainers or YouTube, disaster relief or computer programming – into engineering.
Dr Hayaatun Sillem CBE, CEO of the Royal Academy of Engineering, says: “Putting important questions concerning AI safety and ethics to one side, there is a fundamental question that the UK needs to answer about this new platform technology if we want to be a world leader: where will the skills come from to deliver our AI future?
“Rapid growth in demand for AI skills is a global phenomenon, with businesses, universities and governments worldwide seeking AI experts. Unless we address this skills challenge now, the shortage of talent in AI and computing will have a profound impact on the UK’s ability to be a global leading player in this sector. Engineering and computer science skills are key to the UK meeting its ambition to realise the benefits of AI technologies, which could range from tools to assist surgeons with complex surgery to providing real-time sports analytics.
“As well as software skills, to be a true AI leader the UK will also need world leading skills to design, build and maintain the hardware and networks that enable modern AI systems; and everyone should have the grounding in digital skills to work effectively with these technologies.”
The Royal Academy of Engineering is harnessing the power of engineering to build a sustainable society and an inclusive economy that works for everyone. In collaboration with our Fellows and partners, we’re growing talent and developing skills for the future, driving innovation and building global partnerships, and influencing policy and engaging the public. Together we’re working to tackle the greatest challenges of our age.
National Engineering Day (formerly This is Engineering Day) aims to make the UK’s engineers and engineering more visible and celebrate how they improve everyday lives and shape the world around us. This year, National Engineering Day will be celebrated on 1 November, highlighting engineers and the engineering innovations that are tipped to make the future a better place for people and planet.
Higher Education Statistics Agency https://www.hesa.ac.uk/data-and-analysis/students
Joint Council for Qualifications https://www.jcq.org.uk/examination-results/