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AI courses face negative perception from UK students, study suggests

Image credit: Katarzyna Bialasiewicz/Dreamstime

Higher education courses in artificial intelligence (AI) are going largely unnoticed by students, many of whom perceive such qualifications as a waste of their time, leading only to a dull career, according to a skills study conducted for BT.

Despite analyst predictions that the AI industry will be worth approximately £49bn globally in 2022, a new in-depth study by BT has uncovered a lack of awareness among UK students about the opportunity to pursue qualifications in AI-related courses.

The findings are revealed in BT’s report, 'AI skills: Motivation & AI careers myths debunked', which was commissioned in partnership with Yonder Consultancy, to understand how to grow and retain AI talent in the UK.

Where almost three in five (59 per cent) of higher education students said they were unaware of AI courses at the time of choosing their course, over half (51 per cent) revealed that they would consider studies centred around AI in the future, once they had understood and received more information about what the courses entail.

Identifying additional challenges connected to the attraction of talent to the UK AI industry, the study found that 38 per cent of higher education students perceive a career in AI to be dull, while 42 per cent believe that AI qualifications wouldn’t give them the career they are looking for.

Despite these perception issues, 66 per cent of higher education students believe the AI industry to be full of ambitious people and almost three-quarters (73 per cent) believe it to be a career that would allow them to solve problems.

Harmeen Mehta, chief innovation and digital officer, BT, said: “Having graduated in AI more than two decades ago and lived through the AI winter, I am so excited to see how AI is changing the world and how we live! If you are someone who likes solving problems at scale, building platforms, passionate about data and AI and crave diversity of thought, a rich and diverse set of career opportunities are waiting for you."

Adrian Joseph OBE, managing director for data and AI at BT, said: “AI will be the most transformational technology in the next three to five years and is one of the most exciting to be working in right now. There’s no limit to what we can achieve, with AI outperforming us in many areas already, though we clearly have some opportunity to communicate this better to students.

“We need the right talent onboard, not just in the technology areas of AI but also in social sciences, including ethics. It’s more important than ever to ensure that careers in data and AI are as inclusive and accessible as possible, to create a bigger, more diverse and quality pipeline of AI talent.”

Offered as a case study, Ashruti Rajesh, a data analyst graduate at BT, took an alternative route into a career into AI: “After studying English Literature at university, I joined the BT-enabled digital training programme – FastFutures – which gave me exposure to a career in data. I then completed a data bootcamp led by CodeFirstGirls, sponsored by BT, which secured my role as a data analyst at BT today.

“Working within data and AI has enabled me to place my analytical lens away from academia and onto an area of work which is equally as broad as it is challenging and exciting. I can see how the work I do contributes to the improvement of the business and makes a real difference to everyday processes at BT.”

BT has its own ambitious plans to make the company an AI-led business. It intends to launch a 'Digital Campus', with data and AI a key aspect of this initiative to train and upskill existing BT talent, with the aim of contributing to wider upskilling in the market as a whole. An event to be held this autumn is planned to supply a broad range of education, training and career information for any young people thinking about working with AI.

In September 2021, the UK government set out its AI strategy with programmes to support researchers in the field and develop its commercialism. This followed over £2.3bn of government money having been invested in AI since 2014.

The AI strategy found that the gap between demand and supply of AI skills remains significant and growing, concluding that in order to meet demand the UK needs a larger workforce with AI expertise. BT's report has highlighted the ongoing challenges to this critical stage of development.

Other roadblocks also remain in place in terms of realising the potential of the UK's AI strategy.

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