The UK’s universities are doing something right when it comes to AI. World-class lecturers choose to teach here, innovative courses pave the way in cutting-edge fields, and alumni go on to found the world’s brightest startups in this brave new world.

Like the Industrial Revolution before it, the AI revolution will consign some industries to history and open up entirely new ones. And just like the industrial revolution, the UK’s leading educational system has given the country a head start in this new era.

However, success on this scale can breed complacency. And this is a trap into which the incoming Labour government cannot afford to slip.

Other countries have seen that the UK’s AI prowess is built on the foundations laid by its universities. They are now throwing money hand over fist at their own higher education systems in an attempt not just to emulate the UK’s success, but to power past it. The new Minister for Universities must take radical action to ensure that the UK’s higher education system can fend off these competitors.

Despite the UK’s successes, a host of competitors have smelt blood in the water. A misfiring economy and tumultuous political backdrop have hamstrung the UK’s AI ecosystem – and other countries like the UAE and China have moved in, shovelling state money towards AI in higher education.

China is integrating compulsory AI modules across the entire curriculum, making AI a bedrock of every university. The UAE has founded a whole university solely dedicated to AI, the Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence (MBZUAI). The MBZUAI is reportedly wooing UK, US, and other globally leading academics to its campus with lucrative pay packages.

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There is a serious risk here that the UK, searching for needles of success in a haystack of policy failures, puts the AI sector on a pedestal, epitomising everything great about the country. Too busy celebrating its past, the UK’s higher education system risks waking up in the future with its universities hollowed out of AI talent and dry of life-giving investment.

To avoid this, and to ensure that the UK’s universities can fend off the new challengers, the new Minister for Universities needs to be bold. It’s not enough to tinker and tweak around the edges – the UK needs its own, dedicated AI-only university.

For the new Labour government, this offers an opportunity to show the electorate that they are serious about their agenda of unlocking growth. A specialised university would benefit from the hub effect, bringing together the UK’s best AI talent, and serving as a lightning rod of external investment, powering surrounding fields and the wider tech ecosystem.

The new government could also establish the university in an area of the UK that has had its tech potential overlooked in favour of London. What better way to demonstrate their commitment to the country than by founding the new UK University for AI in the epicentres of the industrial revolution, Manchester or Edinburgh – both tech hubs in their own right – but would be supercharged by the wave of investment that a new, AI-first university would bring.

A new, AI-only university would also expedite the research-to-startup pipeline. Accelerators and incubators would know exactly where to look for the best AI talent and ideas, and the new university can be founded in partnership with leading private venture capital firms, giving private investment the most efficient route possible into the UK’s AI ecosystem.

The UK is right to view its higher education system as a success. It has put the UK in pole position to capitalise on the AI boom over the coming years. The wider economy will reap the rewards of this. But it can’t afford to rest on its laurels – just because UK universities have dominated the playing field, does not mean that they will always do so.

Challenger nations know this – and have acted accordingly. Innovative initiatives like the MBZUAI in the UAE hope to catch the UK napping and encroach on its slice of AI investment. If the new Labour government wants to set out its stall for future growth, then AI should be at the centre of its plans – the new Minister for Universities must take steps to ensure the UK’s higher education remains world-class. That’s why they should build a UK University for AI.

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