Use unspent apprenticeship levy on national robotics training programme, argue universities

The UK-RAS Network of 28 universities say free, public “high-end resources” could help close the skills gap

A consortium of universities leading cutting-edge robotics research has called for the government to allocate unspent apprenticeship levy funds on a national robotics resources programme to close a skills gap in robotics and autonomous systems.

The UK-RAS (Robotics and Autonomous System) Network, comprising eight RAS “centres of excellence” and 28 leading RAS research universities, has published a white paper that sets out the “urgent action” needed from policymakers.

The report argues that many small- and medium-sized enterprises miss out on “the excellence of many of our universities and best-performing large and small technology companies”.

“With the introduction of the new T-levels, a National Retraining Scheme, degree apprenticeships, the Skills Toolkit and an embracement of the role of Learning Factories, [the] UK government is, certainly, responding to
the challenge,” the report notes, “but real questions remain as to whether the new proposals will be funded and scaled sufficiently to be truly effective.”

“While such large infrastructural schemes unfold, it will be possible to implement other complementary, timely and affordable interventions,” the report continues.

Real questions remain as to whether the new [government] proposals will be funded and scaled sufficiently to be truly effective – UK-RAS, Preparing the workforce for 2030: Skills and Education for Robotics & Autonomous Systems

First among those recommendations is a plea to build “free, public… high-end resources” that help workers and managers “obtain the training and practical experience of robotics that they need in an affordable and scalable way”. This national robotics resources programme could receive unspent apprenticeship levy revenues, the report argues. “Many larger companies […] may well prefer to spend their levy payments in this way, augmenting their own training resources as well as supporting the SMEs in their supply chain,” it continues.

The report argues for “robot learning factories” to sit alongside the national robotics resources programme, offering in-person instruction alongside smaller “mobile units”. Schools and libraries “would be ideal mini-hubs” for these mobile “mini-hubs” for young and mature learners alike. This investment would also revitalise the network of libraries, offering them access to new funding streams and a new purpose in a community. Robot learning factories had proved successful in the US, pioneered by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and in Germany, the report said.

The report calls for more use of robots in the national curriculum: “Tangible contact with robots, as already demonstrated in international robotics competitions, demystifies science and autonomous systems, engages people with technology and gives vital hands-on experience of the technologies that will dominate the workplace of 2030”.

The experts that helped write the report said there was “limited management understanding of emerging technologies” – and inadequate teaching in schools to provide children with “skill sets required by employers”.

One of the report authors, Prof Tony Prescott, professor of Cognitive Robotics at the University of Sheffield, said: “We urgently need to make robotics learning resources accessible to everyone”.

Co-author Richard Waterstone, director of Cyberselve, a robotics spin-out from the University of Sheffield, said: “Much of the current digital skills gap in the UK can be traced to a lack of access to cutting-edge technological resources among the current working population and those still in education.

“We believe that our recommendation to develop and make freely available a public repository of high-level resources through Robotics Learning Factories linked digitally to smaller mini-hubs would be both scalable and affordable, and go a long way to address the digital skills gap in the UK.”

Read more: Innovation strategy to drive private sector investment in research, government says

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