Three crucial ways the UK can develop the digital skills it needs to remain a global pioneer in science and technology

It is impossible to become a science and technology superpower unless there is opportunity for all to contribute and benefit. By techUK's Head of Skills, Talent and Diversity, Nimmi Patel.

We have heard a lot about the UK’s ambition toward becoming a science and tech superpower. To do this, the House of Lords Science and Tech Committee has recommended that the Office for Science and Technology Strategy should include people and skills as a core strand in its work to coordinate a science and technology strategy across government.

In other words, there’s no growth agenda without long-term skills development.

The findings of techUK’s recent Digital Economy Monitor survey show that UK businesses are not able to recruit the digital skills they need, with 57% of members see accessing talent and skilled workers as a main concern for 2023. While there have been layoffs in parts of the tech sector, the demand for digitally skilled talent has not slowed. This has placed a cap on growth and innovation—not just for tech firms but all businesses and public services looking to innovate through digitisation.

Here are three things the UK can do to drive digital skills:

  1. To help people upskill: Work with industry to sponsor the uptake of short modular digital skills courses

techUK and TechSkills are leading the debate on how government and industry can work together to champion and expand the development and take up of short modular courses, including bootcamps. They have been proven to be a flexible, affordable, and effective route for learners to acquire productive digital skills that are valued by employers.

Those who find themselves newly unemployed or who want to “future-proof” themselves are often adults juggling full lives. Learning should not be seen as a luxury, but the traditional trappings of education – full-time courses, high fees and learning in the constraints of a physical location, can make it seem that way. Research for the Department for Education identified that ‘time’ was the most commonly cited barrier to engaging in learning, selected by 52% of respondents. Time is a significant investment and therefore it is crucial that investing in learning is shown as time well-spent.

For example, IBM SkillsBuild is an online learning platform that aims to upskill 30 million people globally by 2030. While Uber has established a partnership with the Open University to provide free flexible degree courses and access to free short courses for their drivers (or one of their family members), supporting flexible earning and learning around other commitments. These types of more modular learning can drive lifelong skill building and offer easier avenues for people transitioning between sectors.

Through the Sir Michael Barber review, the government should review how it supports this kind of retraining and where additional funding can be used to encourage the wider use of bite-sized industry-led training designed to fit around the learner and their life. Remote learning also increases accessibility and with increasing availability of online and virtual digital skills training, organisations are able to build a more inclusive workforce with up-to-date digital skills.

  1. To build the talent pipeline: Replicate AI Masters conversion courses to other digital sub-sectors

As highlighted in techUK’s Quantum report, techUK has welcomed joint government-industry collaborations to drive up AI skills in the UK. The UK has had success in the creation of AI Masters conversion courses which enable graduates to do further study courses in the field even if their undergraduate course is not directly related. Supported by techUK members including Deepmind, QuantumBlack, Cisco, BAE Systems, Infosys, and Accenture, this programme has enabled 2,500 people to develop new digital skills or retrain to help find new employment in the UK’s cutting-edge AI and data science sectors.

UK government could help deliver further training opportunities, working to develop post-graduate certificates to fill key missing gaps to develop graduates with an understanding of the huge potential of technologies such as quantum, semiconductors, web 3.0 and metaverse technologies from a technological and business perspective. Creating a steady pipeline of tech talent is imperative to the UK remaining a science and tech superpower and these partnerships are needed to develop the next generation of tech talent.

  1. To access the best global talent: Reduce cost of UK visas to match our competitors

Migration is critical to delivering continued innovation, competitiveness, and employment opportunities in the UK. However, the skyrocketing prices of visas is a disincentive for firms and damages the UK’s competitiveness a as location to base a tech firm. The cost to small UK firms is £6,910 and £11,030 for large firms for a five-year sponsored visa. In comparison with Australia, France, Germany and Canada, the UK’s visa fees are significantly more expensive. One techUK member reported that it can cost six times more to get a UK visa than it does to get a visa for their offices in a competing country.

The need for international talent should not be seen as a stopgap until such time as the UK is able to train a sufficient domestic talent pool. If the UK is to be home to the world-leading tech companies, the need to attract international talent will be constant. Companies will always want to hire the best and brightest talent available to them, wherever they come from. This principle will not change as the domestic talent pool grows. Ultimately, to keep the UK at the forefront of global innovation and to become a science and tech superpower, we must ensure that we are delivering value for money via the visa system and that costs are kept at a competitive rate versus other countries. Read more analysis.

💻 techUK has made furthers recommendations on ways to drive skills investment, that supports employers, supports learners, and delivers change at scale, to become a global digital powerhouse.

Equitable innovation

Barriers to training and upskilling is a key driver of the imbalance in the development, distribution and benefits of innovation. As many of the recommendations above show, Government must ensure any initiatives to address the digital skills shortage are made with accessibility and inclusivity in mind, especially at a time when education inequality still means that fewer than 30% of children in the poorest households reach the attainable GCSE threshold and, as techUK’s Local Digital Capital Index shows, innovation is certainly not equal on a geographic basis. It is impossible to become a science and technology superpower unless there is opportunity for all to contribute and benefit.

techUK’s new tech and innovation campaign hopes to address some of these key challenges discussed in this insight and develop thinking on how the UK can thrive internationally through technology and innovation. With over 950 members working across a diverse range of technologies, and with strong networks across public, private and third sectors, techUK is uniquely positioned to convene technology leaders and ensure the innovation ecosystem is fit for purpose in the UK. For more information or to get involved, please visit our Innovation Hub and complete the ‘contact us’ form.


techUK – Supercharging UK Tech and Innovation

The opportunities of innovation are endless. Automation, IoT, AI, Edge, Quantum, Drones and High Performance Computing all have the power to transform the UK. techUK members lead the development of these technologies. Together we are working with Government and other stakeholders to address tech innovation priorities and build an innovation ecosystem that will benefit people, society, economy and the planet - and supercharge the UK as a global leader in tech and innovation.

For more information, or to get in touch, please visit our Innovation Hub and click ‘contact us’. 


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Keen to learn more? Get in touch:

Nimmi Patel

Nimmi Patel

Head of Skills, Talent and Diversity, techUK

Nimmi Patel is the Head of Skills, Talent and Diversity at techUK.

She works on all things skills, education, and future of work policy, focusing on upskilling and retraining. Nimmi is also an Advisory Board member of Digital Futures at Work Research Centre (digit). The Centre research aims to increase understanding of how digital technologies are changing work and the implications for employers, workers, job seekers and governments.

Prior to joining the team, she worked for the UK Labour Party and New Zealand Labour Party, and holds an MA in  Strategic Communications at King’s College London and BA in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from the University of Manchester.

[email protected]

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Laura Foster

Laura Foster

Head of Technology and Innovation, techUK

Laura is techUK’s Head of Programme for Technology and Innovation.

She supports the application and expansion of emerging technologies, including Quantum Computing, High-Performance Computing, AR/VR/XR and Edge technologies, across the UK. As part of this, she works alongside techUK members and UK Government to champion long-term and sustainable innovation policy that will ensure the UK is a pioneer in science and technology

Before joining techUK, Laura worked internationally as a conference researcher and producer covering enterprise adoption of emerging technologies. This included being part of the strategic team at London Tech Week.

Laura has a degree in History (BA Hons) from Durham University, focussing on regional social history. Outside of work she loves reading, travelling and supporting rugby team St. Helens, where she is from.

[email protected]

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