AI in Tertiary Education: National Centre for AI launched today

April 27, 2021

Welcomed by multinational tech companies, a national centre for AI in tertiary education has been launched by Jisc and supported by universities and colleges throughout the UK

AI in Tertiary Education

The initiative – which has been welcomed by global technology companies including Amazon Web Services, Google, and Microsoft – is led by the education and technology not-for-profit, Jisc, and supported by innovation-focused universities and colleges throughout the UK. It will initially be staffed by a dedicated team of seven AI experts, plus consultants and partners from industry and education. 

The National Centre supports the government’s AI Strategy, which the digital secretary, Oliver Dowden, announced in March, saying: “Unleashing the power of AI is a top priority”. Yet while AI is predicted to increase our national GDP by 10.3% by 2030, and despite Office for Artificial Intelligence estimates that AI could boost productivity in some industries by 30%, a lack of investment in AI for education is endangering the UK’s global competitiveness. Nationally, we are yet to meaningfully embed technology within higher and further education.  

Jisc’s National Centre addresses this gap. Informed by the AI in tertiary education report into the current uses and impact of these technologies, the National Centre aims to deliver AI solutions at 60 colleges and 30 universities within five years.  

Jisc’s director of edtech, Andy McGregor, says: “Universities and colleges are at a critical juncture. COVID showed the possibilities technology offers in delivering courses remotely. AI offers the chance to help every student reach their highest potential by offering highly personalised education. However, this will only work if AI is used to augment the important role teachers play in education, and if ethics are at the forefront of implementing AI tools.” 

The National Centre for AI in Tertiary Education will identify effective AI solutions, measuring them against its ethical framework, and testing how they improve learner experiences. The Centre will also develop new AI solutions, and build systems to both support teaching staff and reduce the burden of admin. Its main aim is to ensure AI is used in ways that augment teachers’ skills and supports human-led education by developing staff skills and confidence in using AI tools. To achieve this, a team of Jisc consultants will provide on-the-ground support, helping to install AI solutions in universities and colleges, and training staff to use these to bolster their teaching practice.  

Rose Luckin, professor of learner-centred design at University College London, comments: “AI is full of promise, but that promise will not be realised unless government, educators, experts and businesses work collaboratively to harness its potential. Now is the moment to accelerate AI adoption in tertiary education, and I’m very excited by the prospect of a National Centre in this field.”  

The AI in tertiary education report highlights AI-driven services currently used at pioneering institutions – such as Bolton College’s digital assistant, Ada, which supports students by offering tailored responses to their questions. Keen to share this technology and develop its capabilities, Bolton’s information learning technology manager, Aftab Hussain, says: “Jisc’s National Centre for AI in Tertiary Education will be essential, sharing information, advice and guidance, and establishing an ethical framework with the sector that could guide the design, management and use of AI products and services. 

“Agility and flexibility are no longer optional in education,” Hussain adds. “Developing our use and understanding of AI will only aid our journey to a more inclusive experience.”  

Jisc’s CEO, Dr Paul Feldman says: “This unique and collaborative venture combines Jisc’s expertise in technology-enhanced education with insights from our college and university members, and support from the world’s leading technology solutions providers. The potential is huge, reimagining how future generations are taught, and preparing students to make the most of the advanced technologies around us.”