Theresa May announces extra funding for tech to buffer against Brexit
Ahead of next week’s Autumn budget, Theresa May has announced a host of commitments to the UK tech sector – including a doubling of visas available for global talent, and a £20 million fund to help solve problems in the public sector with technologies like artificial intelligence.
The announcement is being framed as a reaffirmation of the current government’s commitment to the industry, and comes at a time when the Brexit debate has become mired in a parliamentary struggle over who should get a final say over Britain’s exit terms from the European Union.
The Prime Minister said the measures will help the country “build an economy fit for the future”. They include a doubling to 2,000 of the number of visas available to the “brightest and best” talent from around the world – a figure that will include digital technology experts.
The measures also include an investment of £21 million to expand Tech City UK into a nationwide network, dubbed Tech Nation; the establishment of a ‘GovTech’ fund to encourage UK firms to use tech to solve challenges facing the public sector; and a £20 million programme to train young people aged between 14 and 18 against online cyber threats.
“Technology is at the heart of our modern Industrial Strategy, and we will continue to invest in the best new innovations and ideas, in the brightest and best talent, and in revolutionary digital infrastructure,” said May.
“And as we prepare to leave the European Union, I am clear that Britain will remain open for business. That means Government doing all it can to secure a strong future for our thriving tech sector and ensure people in all corners of our nation share in the benefits of its success.”
£20 million here and there may be a nice offering, but it’s ultimately miniscule compared to the amounts that stands to be disturbed by Brexit if investment and talent flows elsewhere. While the terms of Britain’s departure from the EU are still being decided, there has already been a sharp drop in the number of EU applicants to the UK industry.
Spreading funding outside of London is a theme throughout the announcements. The government has said it will “look at how it can” work with organisations nationally to ensure wider take up of the additional visas. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) is also launching a £2 million pilot voucher scheme in Aberdeenshire; Bristol/Bath and North East Somerset; Coventry and Warwickshire; and West Yorkshire – to pay for full-fibre gigabit broadband connections in those areas.
On the latter, the government says it is part of a pledge to bring fast and reliable broadband to homes and businesses across the country. Public anger around the lack of speedy connectivity has risen to effigy-burning levels, as the government’s pledge to bring fibre broadband to 95% of the UK looks to have stalled. Recent reports have even suggested that UK broadband is amongst the very worst in Europe.
The Tech Nation scheme, meanwhile, will open the London-based model to cities including Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Birmingham. “We are delighted to hear that the Government wants to increase Tech City UK’s funding for the next four years,” said Eileen Burbidge, Chair of Tech City UK. “Under the Tech Nation banner, this country that has brought so much innovation to the world and leads in sub-sectors such as fintech, cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, robotics and life sciences, will build a national network of digital excellence so that the UK will continue to be recognised as one of the best places in the world to start or grow a digital tech business.”
With Brexit looming, the tech sector has surfaced as one of the UK government’s key areas of focus in terms of retaining international talent. The doubling of visas is clearly pitched at tempting global experts to the shores of post-Brexit Britain, and it comes in the same year as the announced Digital Strategy plan to boost tech skills with the help of firms such as Google.