New findings from an external evaluation of artificial intelligence (AI) and data science postgraduate conversion courses funded by the Office for Students (OfS) shows a high proportion of enrolments from women, black and disabled students.
The data shows that nearly half (46 per cent) of the total UK students are women, compared with 27 per cent on computing postgraduate taught masters courses previously 23 per cent are black students (12 per cent) and 20 per cent are disabled (16 per cent). This is much higher than the tech workforce as a whole. Compared to data by Tech Nation highlighted in the government’s AI Sector Deal, women represent 49 per cent of the workforce but hold less than 19 per cent of all available technology jobs.
28 universities across England are offering the courses, which aim to respond to a skills shortage and a lack of diversity in the tech sector. The shortage is estimated to cost businesses £2 billion a year.
In partnership with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the Office for Artificial Intelligence (OAI), £13.5 million funding was allocated to the programme, consisting of £3.5 million to assist with course costs and £10 million to deliver 1,000 scholarships worth £10,000 each, aimed at women, black students and disabled students, among other groups considered to be underrepresented in higher education.
The programme aims to enrol at least 2,500 students by autumn 2023. At the end of the first year, the programme is over halfway to achieving that target with 1,315 students enrolled on courses. Of the 170 scholarship students who were from the UK, nearly three quarters (74 per cent) were women, a quarter (25 per cent) were disabled and 40 per cent were black.
Alongside the scholarships, the postgraduate courses have been designed to be delivered flexibly to fit with students’ other work or caring responsibilities.
Students from different areas of the UK, including regions outside of London and major cities, have been accepted onto the courses. In a survey conducted in November 2020 asking students enrolled in the autumn cohort, 55 per cent of students stated their reasons for choosing their particular course included that it was in a convenient location. For a significant proportion (36 per cent) it was the same university at which they studied their first degree.
The courses are designed as conversion courses, so graduates of all ages who are looking to retrain, gain new skills or return to work after a career break can apply without needing a background in a STEM subject. Applications are welcomed from students with undergraduate degrees in subjects other than STEM, as well as for new graduates yet to enter the labour market.
Findings from an external evaluation show almost half (46 per cent) of the first year’s cohort had undergraduate degrees in either non-STEM or other far-STEM subjects (such as biology, geology, psychology, medicine). In the survey, 61 per cent reported that they had applied for the courses following employment with 37 per cent of the total stated their prior role was long-term and considered it to be a career-job.
Work placements are offered as part of the courses to improve graduate employability. Universities are actively seeking companies who are interested in recruiting students for paid placement opportunities, where students can use their training to gain experience and contribute to the sector. Companies are urged to get in touch with participating universities directly to enquire.
Applied AI and Data Science (MSc) mature student, Maria Hutchinson, who studies at Solent University in Southampton, said:
'I started my career as an apprentice engineer for BT in the early 90s. I remember it was challenging being a young woman in a male-dominated environment. I took a break to start a family and then I retrained. I jumped at the chance to do this [course]. I had no prior knowledge of Python programming but that’s ok because this is a conversion course. The course would ideally suit someone who enjoys a challenge and has an analytic approach to problem solving. I found it rewarding and satisfying. In such a short space of time I learnt to create a really complex programming solution with Python and have developed a chatbot to solve a real-world problem.'
Artificial Intelligence and Data Science MSc student at Keele University, Ruvimbo Mauchaza said:
'One thing that did inspire me and still motivates me is following people in the tech industry on social media. For me it’s primarily women of colour… A lot of them didn’t come from a computer science background and they often share their journey and their experiences.'
Commenting on the data, Regius Professor of Computer Science, Chair of the Ada Lovelace Institute and Co-Chair of the government’s AI Review published in 2017, Professor Dame Wendy Hall said:
‘I am really proud of this programme, which has been developed from the AI Review. It provides evidence to show that the courses are delivering new and diverse tech talent into the sector, whether that be training non-STEM graduates with transferable skills or providing development opportunities to upskill individuals within related sectors. The courses and scholarships present inclusive and flexible opportunities to respond to a modern workforce with varied needs and commitments and a growing demand for jobs which will help to support the UK’s post-pandemic recovery.’
The new figures were announced by Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden today during a panel discussion at tech industry event Founders Forum, discussing how the government and businesses can work together to boost people's digital skills and build a tech savvy nation.
Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden said:
'Our £13.5 million investment in training courses and scholarships is paying off with these fantastic new figures showing positive results to combat the lack of diversity in the tech sector.
'Our new National AI Strategy will also put diversity at the heart of our plans to develop and maintain the best AI workforce in the world and will be vital in helping build a fairer, stronger and more diverse industry.'
The OfS’s Director for Fair Access and Participation, Chris Millward said:
'This enrolment data shows early and promising indications of a change within the tech industry, which will help to meet skills shortages, whilst enabling the industry to look more like society as a whole.
'The courses provide exciting opportunities for students to fit their studies around other commitments through flexible learning and scholarship support. This is enabling graduates at different points of their careers to gain the advanced skills they and their employers will need for the future.'
- The government’s Digital Strategy predicts that, within 20 years, 90 per cent of all jobs will require some element of digital skills. The Industrial Strategy states the UK’s ambition to generate good jobs and greater earning power for all; addressing skills shortages is a key component of the artificial intelligence and data ‘grand challenge’ which aims to remove retraining barriers, normalise career changes and drive diversity. This funding aims to address these issues by working with universities and industry to allow people from non-STEM backgrounds to train in artificial intelligence and data science.
- A conversion course may be aimed at either upskilling someone with capabilities and expertise to enhance those they have already or equipping them with entirely new capabilities and expertise aimed at a career change. The skills and competences offered by such courses are applicable to a wide range of professions: from jobs requiring highly technical data science and engineering knowledge, to broader business and management process roles.
- These courses are the latest stage of the government’s support for strengthening the UK’s artificial intelligence talent pipeline and represent the delivery of another of the key commitments in the £1 billion AI Sector Deal. The AI Sector Deal sets out how artificial Intelligence and data will bring economic growth to the UK.
- Of £13.5 million funding, £10 million is for scholarships and £3.5 million is for running the courses and programme, including course costs and staffing.
- The Office for Artificial Intelligence is a joint unit between the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and Digital, Culture, Media and Sport departments.
- Enrollment data is presented in the chart below:
Postgraduate conversion course
All enrolments to date in year1 (target 605)
All scholarships (target 220)
- According to national data gathered from over 540 organisations in the UK by the Tech Talent Charter in their 2020 Diversity in Tech report, data science roles increased by 46 per cent from 2018-19 but only 25 per cent of technical roles are held by women.
- Looking only at computing postgraduate taught masters courses for UK domicile entrants, the OfS’s recent publication showed 27 per cent women, 12 per cent black and 16 per cent disabled students.