Nick Maughan: How the Turing Scheme can, with the right investment, inspire the next digital generation

6 Aug

Nick Maughan is an investor and philanthropist.

From September, more than 40,000 students from British universities will embark on once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to study and work overseas, undertaking courses based all over the world, from Mongolia to Zimbabwe.

This week, ministers unveiled more details of the UK government’s Erasmus replacement – the Turing Scheme – confirming that Britain’s young people will be able to think beyond their national borders in considering their educational pathways.

Offering a choice of 150 destinations, students will be able to travel to places as remote as the Falkland Islands and the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu. With the scheme designed to improve social mobility, it is hoped the programme will prove accessible, with measures in place to provide funding for travel expenses and grants for living costs. Named after mathematician, codebreaker, and computer scientist Alan Turing, the scheme may pioneer the next generation of technological advancements, fostering international collaboration and strengthening capabilities.

However, to accelerate the development of new technologies, greater investment will be needed to equip young people with digital skills while at school.

Today’s young people will live through the transition from the fourth to the fifth industrial revolution. By the time they come of age, the world will be more reliant than ever on Artificial Intelligence (AI), Big Data (BD), and the Internet of Things (IoT). Therefore, mastering digital literacy will not only increase our young peoples’ chance of success, but will increasingly become a matter of survival.

As a 2017 report from the House of Lords urges: “Digital literacy should be the fourth pillar of a child’s education alongside reading, writing and mathematics and be resourced and taught accordingly”.

Technology now permeates every aspect of our lives, from how we work and socialise to even exercise, and these trends have only accelerated over the course of the past year. When schools were forced to shut during lockdowns, it was immediately evident that the country was not prepared to move education online. Through no fault of their own, many teachers forced to shift to remote learning ended up preparing online teaching platforms out of business tools.

For the vast majority of students, and particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, remote learning has been nothing short of a disaster. On the upside, the realisation of this fact is in part responsible for triggering what looks to become an educational reformation based on the opportunities presented by technology.

For example, Thomas Arnett of the Christensen Institute says that following the introduction of remote learning, teachers have begun to see the benefit of delivering material to the whole class at the start of lessons via videos provided in advance. This is because this method of delivery minimises the amount of classroom-time teachers spend lecturing and maximises the time they could spend helping pupils apply knowledge they have already acquired.

Similarly, others have found that the tablets purchased to facilitate lockdown learning can now be repurposed to provide live-translation of lessons for children whose first language is not English.

These are just a few ways in which young people can benefit from greater access to technology.

Beyond the classroom, it is becoming increasingly clear that young people will need to master digital and computational skills to thrive. As a 2021 report by the Learning and Work Institute found, 88 per cent of young people think digital skills will be important for their future careers. However, only 62 per cent of the younger generation believe they have these basic digital skills. With 60 per cent of business leaders now saying they will require more advanced tech skills in the next five years, the digital skill gap is likely to widen if more equal opportunities are not put in place now.

Through the work of the Nick Maughan Foundation (NMF), we have witnessed first-hand the transformative power of investment in education. Seeking to help children from disadvantaged backgrounds to have the same opportunities as those from more fortunate backgrounds, NMF intends to focus increasingly on bridging the digital divide, in addition to our provision of traditional grants and scholarships, as well as funding for under-resourced schools.

However, charities can only do so much. The government must invest in digital programmes in schools to set our young people up for future success.

With details of the Turing Scheme now available, it is clear increased opportunity for young people to study and work overseas is a welcome step that may foster the next generation of technological advancements. However, to equip the younger generation with the necessary skills to thrive in the digital age, and accelerate the pace of technological development, greater investment will be needed to equip Britain’s young people with digital skills at an earlier stage, starting at school.

Nicky Morgan and Damian Collins: Ministers must make Britain’s world-leading tech sector a top priority

3 Jun

Nicky Morgan is a Conservative peer and former Digital Secretary. Damian Collins is MP for Folkestone and Hythe and former Chair of the DCMS Select Committee.

In spite of recent news there is definitely now light at the end of the Covid-19 tunnel. With the Government continuing to deliver on its ambition to offer a vaccine to every adult by July, we can start to look at policies beyond Covid.

As co-Chairs of the recently formed Conservative Friends of Tech, we strongly believe one of the priorities for Government should be to leverage time, energy, and policy to developing and strengthening our tech sector, including sectors such as fintech and ‘govtech’.

There was a record £10.1bn investment into UK tech companies in 2019. Between 2010 and 2018, the tech sector GVA (gross value added) grew nearly six times as fast as that of the UK economy as a whole. The UK’s tech and digital sector is worth more than £400 million a day to the UK economy.

As respectively a former Digital Secretary and DCMS Select Committee Chair, we know that the UK remains one of the best countries in the world for tech, and continues to attract the best and brightest entrepreneurs and minds in the world. Eighty UK tech companies are now ‘unicorns’ (companies with valuations over $1bn) – more than any other country in Europe.

The UK also has 136 potential unicorns –  companies with a value of $250m to $800m. This is more than twice as many as Germany and France, the countries with the next largest pipeline of future unicorns (61).

It is expected that the tech sector will have 100,000 job openings a month by the end of June this year, and we believe that the many thousands of highly skilled jobs that the sector is creating will be a vital and valuable part of our economic recovery, including for those who have been furloughed and have returned to work to find their previous jobs or sectors changed by the pandemic.

According to recent reports, ten per cent of all current UK job vacancies are for tech jobs, demonstrating not only the value and importance of a sector that already represents nine per cent  of the UK workforce, but highlights the potential value the sector will continue to add over the coming years.

In the aftermath of both Brexit and a global pandemic that has impacted, and will continue to impact, the way we work and recruit people, the challenges for the next few years will be ensuring that both major tech companies and vibrant start ups can hire the talent that they need. As the British tech sector is a global centre of excellence, it needs access to the best talent both at home and from overseas, to facilitate agile and ambitious growth. According to research by The Entrepreneurs Network, 49 per cent of the 100 fastest growing start-ups have at least one foreign-born co-founder.

The pandemic triggered an outflow of around 700,000 foreign-born residents from London alone. This presents challenge to the tech sector, although employees have grown used to working remotely.

But as the UK, and the world looks to find a ‘new normal’ post-pandemic, we should use the opportunity to assess our immigration policy and student visas to ensure we really can attract the brightest and best people to the UK – and turbocharge the sector and the economy.

Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial college account for three of the seven top-ranked universities in the world with regard to their computer science departments, and these are great places to nurture talent for tech start-ups. We believe the Government should preserve funding for top-performing universities so as to enhance their attractiveness to entrepreneurially-minded students, and to create and embed an ecosystem of learning, development and symbiosis between tech and education.

Of course, immigration policy and nurturing future talent are only two of the many policy areas we, and the Government need to focus on if we wish to truly support, and catalyse the tech sector. We also need to ensure fair competition within the tech sector to give start-ups and young businesses the chance to thrive

. This means empowering the competition authorities to prevent abuse of market power from big tech platforms, and requiring all firms to pay their share of taxes relevant to the value of the businesses they do in this country.

We hope you will join us at CFTech alongside industry leaders, politicians, think tanks, ministers, and academics, so we can discuss how best to support and galvanise the sector.

Ed McGuinness: A state-of-the-art internet infrastructure network is the key to ‘levelling up’

25 Mar

Ed McGuinness is a former Chairman of Islington Conservative Federation, founder of Conservatives in the City, and contested Hornsey & Wood Green during last year’s General Election.

The 2019 Conservative Party Conference seems like a long time ago: Manchester thronging with crowds, ministerial drop-ins to fringe events, warm wine on a terrace somewhere, enjoying the last sparkle of summer sunshine.

Amongst the policy and pints there was one that stood out to me. Not unique in the pantheon of the Prime Minister’s ambitious vision was to have, “gigabit broadband sprouting in every home.” However, what is unique is the effect this particular ambition can have on everyone in the country.

So often politics, particularly Westminster politics, can seem distant; billions of pounds spent on a scheme that is nowhere near where you live, and the effects of which will be imperceptible to you. But, there are certain times when Westminster does touch people directly, and quickly.

An obvious example is taxation. For me, genuinely overnight, the stamp duty freeze allowed us to finally think about purchasing our first home. Internet connectivity, though, is perhaps one of the most ambitious and immediate reforms this government could have, and certainly a potential lasting legacy for the Prime Minister himself.

When you look at the high level statistics for the UK on broadband connectivity you could be forgiven for thinking we are not doing too badly. According to the ONS 96 per cent of households have internet access, and within Europe, the UK is ranked 8th for internet access according to a study by the EU Commission last year (pre-Brexit). Notably this was a steady decline from 6th and 7th in 2018 and 2019 respectively. Nonetheless, these top-level statistics belie the actual experience of internet usage.

At this stage, and bear with me, it is worth talking, a little, about internet infrastructure. The Commons Library has an excellent report on this but to summarise: superfast broadband is defined as download speeds of 30 megabits per second and is available to 95 per cent of UK properties. This type of broadband has been mainly delivered by Fibre-to-the-Cabinet technology (part-fibre, part-copper). During the coronavirus pandemic this broadband, which was thought to be sufficient for fairly data intensive use, such as streaming videos, was pushed to the limit as our entire lives moved online.

The UK needs to increase its capacity and gigabit broadband (1000Mbps) is the way to do it. As an indication, a one-gigabit-per-second download speed would allow a high-definition film to be downloaded in less than a minute. There are plenty of technologies that can be used to deliver this service including full-fibre connections, high-speed cable broadband, and potentially future 5G networks, as well as emerging satellite internet technology.

However, only 27 per cent of British premises had access to a gigabit-broadband connection in September 2020. (The Library’s dashboard is a fascinating tool to work out where the most affected areas are, should you have a few spare minutes in-between Zoom calls.)

So the problem really is twofold. How do we reach those areas that are still left without adequate internet connection, which is around 100,000 premises, and how do we eventually provide gigabit capable service to the whole country?

The Government’s plan, published on March 19, is welcome. It looks at innovative ways to supply that 0.3 per cent of the country without adequate service. Whilst this may seem like a small number, or a disproportionate level of focus, let us remember that these communities are, by definition, the most isolated and potentially vulnerable in terms of mental health and educational needs, and therefore deserving of focus and attention in improving their connectivity to the rest of the country – at true One Nation idea if I ever have seen one.

The second problem is more ambitious and effectual. With 74 per cent of the country still operating on outdated and inadequate internet infrastructure the return on investment of such upgrades, for the economy and productivity, would be profound. This falls squarely into the Government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda and is a true nationwide issue.

For example, London only has 21 per cent gigabit connectivity (Westminster itself is barely above 55 per cent), the South-East is at 20 per cent, and the North-West sits at 37 per cent. This is a policy area much aligned with the Prime Minister’s pledge to level up the whole country.

The £5 billion scheme announced today, by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, to boost internet connectivity is really welcome news and part of a broader strategy, but I urge the Government not to lose any ambition on this. So rare is the opportunity to transform a part of the nation’s infrastructure that would mean so much to people. It would allow grandparents in Banff to speak to grandchildren in Bristol, help a sole trader in Milton Keynes to sell to customers in Mevagissey and even, dare I say, a Prime Minister in Westminster to speak to colleagues in Workington.

It is not hyperbole to suggest that this project is, and should be, as significant as the creation of the National Grid in the late 1920s. We urge the Government not be swayed by the many competing issues in its inbox, and.throw its energies behind this ambitious and potentially transformative project.

The Conservatives have an historic opportunity to turn Britain into a world leader in gambling harm prevention with a new Gambling Act

15 Jan

Derek Webb is campaigner and philanthropist funding Clean Up Gambling. This is a sponsored post by Clean Up Gambling.

As someone who has for the past decade supported and funded campaigns for gambling reform, I was pleased to see the article on this site by Lord Smith of Hindhead, whose policy recommendations should be easy for parliamentarians of all political stripes to coalesce around. This response elaborates on Lord Smith’s analysis.

Gambling reform covers a wide range of social, economic and cultural issues. Our campaign is a broad church, drawing together advocates from all political persuasions and parties, and many have argued that reform can only be achieved through a “whole government” cross-departmental approach to legislation and regulation. That is why it has been so disappointing that the review does not formally embrace all departments, instead creating a perception that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport – the department with responsibility for gambling – is marking its own homework. Both the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee identified weaknesses in Gambling Commission and DCMS oversight.

In addition to having the departments of Education and Health involved, I believe that it would have been preferable to involve both Treasury and the Ministry of Justice in the review. Gambling tax rates are an important tool in mitigating the socioeconomic consequences of gambling. Forms of gambling that are less harmful or create UK employment have a less negative net impact than offshore remote gambling.

The licensing objective of prevention of gambling being associated with crime, if interpreted logically, is being breached constantly. Persons stealing funds to continue gambling are being incarcerated, at a cost to their families and the taxpayer, with minimal assistance to avoid recidivism. At trial and at sentencing, relevant evidence regarding the conduct of the operators benefiting from the losses is not being provided to the defence. Operators in breach of anti-money-laundering laws are able to settle for amounts that are trivial to them.

Lord Smith correctly advocates that the review of gambling should be conducted fairly. Yet certain actors have a history of being unfair towards parliamentarians, the public and reformers. The offshore remote gambling sector has avoided aspects of UK taxation for 20 years, despite enjoying the benefits of holding UK licences. The whole remote gambling sector avoided gambling tax on their revenue until the introduction of the “tax at point of consumption” principle in 2014. Even then, the Gibraltar Betting and Gaming Association tried to use the EU courts to avoid this tax, and still now many of these operators avoid UK corporation tax.

It is also unfair to attribute equal weight to all “evidence”, as we learned during the campaign to reform FOBTs. The Association of British Bookmakers provided statistics that have now been “discredited” about the impact of a stake reduction on shops and jobs, which were included in a KPMG report. As well as these misleading statistics on job losses and shop closures, once the decision had been made, there were exaggerated claims regarding the length of time needed to change FOBT stakes. Incorrect statistics, speculation and a report that was not shared widely do not constitute credible evidence. Those acting in the gambling reform space do not provide evidence that is influenced by vested or commercial interests.

In the years campaigning against FOBTs, we exhibited at a few Conservative party conferences. The most common response from grassroots attendees was the desire to restrict gambling advertising. With so many vested interests in sport and media, areas for which DCMS has responsibility, we can only hope that this aspect of the review gets a fair hearing. Polling by Survation has consistently found the strongest support for gambling reform is among Tory voters who supported Brexit.

This Conservative government has an historic opportunity to turn Britain into a world leader in gambling harm prevention, but to do so DCMS has to be prepared to act on the evidence by going as far as establishing a new Gambling Act. This government should not want to see a rerun of what happened with FOBTs. Ineffective industry-funded research and initiatives were used as an excuse to delay reform from 2013 to 2019. This time around, inadequate action on the part of DCMS could turn a potential positive for this government into a negative, by ensuring that gambling stays in the political spotlight for years to come.

Nat Wei: Forget moving Parliament to York. It should go fully virtual and innovate to save money.

24 Jul

Lord Wei is a Conservative member of the House of Lords. He is a co-founder of Teach First, a social entrepreneur, and a former government adviser.

There has been a lot of talk about sending Parliament to York, as a means to reconnect with the public. While it is only right to review the cost of moving Parliament out for refurbishment, my sense is that moving to York is actually not radical enough given what we now know is possible – having moved to hybrid sittings as a result of Covid-19.

Shifting to York, a fairly affluent city in the North, would be costly, at a time when the country can little afford it. Whether it will allow people to feel closer to their politicians is not clear.

What might be better, cheaper and more radical would be to enable Parliament to meet virtually using future technologies such as augmented and virtual reality, wikis, breakout lobbies and Committee rooms that the public can visit, observe and participate in.

These technologies will mature in the coming five years or more, and will be much cheaper to implement than a temporary or permanent move to elsewhere in Westminster, York, or anywhere else.

In fact, why not go a step further and harness this opportunity for the Mother of Parliaments to find new ways to engage the public – not just every five years or through the mob that social media can currently represent, or even through petitions?

Why not use this season to accelerate, incubate, and innovate around concepts such as mass participatory budgeting, or betting with real or fake money on what policy ideas will work, or on mass legislative amendments clearly marked with explanations by those in the country and those who need to convey what they think the impact of law and legislation might have on their industry, geography, or lives?

Such lawtech or regulationtech could in turn be harnessed to enable other countries, places and movements to experiment with democracy in different forms, whether representative or direct, whether by seeking to explore whether ideas would be popular, or whether give those ideas a high probability of succeeding or not.

Data, where shared, on whose predictions and votes were actually accurate or prescient, indicating a high degree of judgement, could highlight which citizens might do well to become MPs or peers in future, rather than just relying on the current party selection processes which can be too much of a closed network at the best of times.

Where the private sector has established what are called prediction markets, where – say – employees at a firm bet on the quarterly sales figures of that company weekly or monthly, the market overall learns over time to get to within about two per cent accuracy.

Imagine how many billions could have been saved if there had been such a prediction market in place when Gordon Brown or another leader claims to be able to use tax credits to halve child poverty by 50 per cent by 2020?

Imagine if some of the funds saved could be used to establish low-cost smartphone and Internet-of-things-based ways of assessing if policy actually worked after it has been implemented – so we can all make smarter decisions in future, and learn in real time even where ideas haven’t worked.

Moving Parliament full stop physically could be a costly mistake.

Let’s go online, and have revolving pop-up events around the country if you must (Foster and Partners modular pop-up Parliament concept previously submitted might be modified to enable this) but accelerate the development of the technology so that we can get as close virtually to really being physically together as much as possible.

By using bottom-up innovation this wouldn’t need to cost more than £50 to £100 million to develop. It would certainly cost many, many billions less than moving everyone to York or somewhere else and back.

The arts bailout: a reminder not to underestimate Dowden

6 Jul

In recent weeks, it’s fair to say that Oliver Dowden, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, hasn’t been particularly popular with the arts sector. After the industry was badly affected by the Coronavirus crisis and the mass closures of theatres, cinemas and the rest, many accused him of not doing enough.

Indeed, when he announced a five-stage roadmap to help businesses recover, people took this as evidence of a man who’s all talk and no action. “If you and your government have no desire to invest in and save theatre, then you should at least announce that decision as soon as possible”, posted one individual on Twitter, very much encompassing the general attitude.

With that being said, yesterday the culture secretary forced everyone to reconsider their perceptions of him after he managed to negotiate £1.57 million in funding for the industry. As The Times put it: “The phrase ‘from zero to hero’ may be overused, but what better words describe Oliver Dowden today?” It was an achievement that will not only transform the future of the arts sector, but that of Dowden within the political sphere, who is experiencing his first real arrival on the public stage – the same way Rishi Sunak did when appointed Chancellor.

Dowden’s announcement speaks, first, of his ability as a PR man. Despite the fact that Sunak is announcing a series of measures on Wednesday – including stamp duty scrapped for first-time buyers and an investment in green jobs – the culture secretary managed to get his own statement a centre stage slot over the weekend.

The announcement is not only impressive in its pledges – which includes £120 million capital infrastructure and for heritage construction projects in England, among others – but the list of illustrious names who’ve added their support to it, such as Andrew Lloyd Webber, Sir Simon Rattle and Alex Beard, the Chief Executive of the Royal Opera House.

There’s also the fact, of course, that Dowden negotiated such an enormous bailout in the first place. It indicates that he has great influence in Downing Street, which he’s been developing for years, having started out as a specialist adviser and as David Cameron’s deputy chief of staff. Now the political networking is paying off.

Although the package is not perfect – there have been complaints about whether it can support smaller venues and freelancers – it has received an overwhelmingly positive response. It is a real vindication that we have been listened to“, Kwame Kwei-Armah, artistic director of the Young Vic, told Times Radio; Sir Nicholas Hytner, once Artistic Director of the National Theatre, said it was a better plan than anyone expected.

Throughout the Coronavirus crisis, Dowden has pledged to sort out an investment for the arts – even if no one believed him – so the fact that he has not so much succeeded, but exceeded all expectations, bodes well for his future in the party – though not perhaps for the BBC, which he has previously argued needs an ideological shake-up. And, as Sunday’s news shows, Dowden is a man who means business.