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Government fund offers accountants AI skills upgrade

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Accountants or their clients looking to bolster their AI skills could receive funding as part of a new pilot scheme, with businesses offering accounting, bookkeeping and audit services all targeted.

10th Apr 2024
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The government’s Flexible AI Upskilling Fund pilot is designed to boost artificial intelligence (AI) skills and increase productivity by allowing eligible businesses to apply for funding of up to 50% of the cost of AI skills training. 

Guidance on the fund states that grants will be considered for training that “supports employees to develop their technical skills and/or understanding of AI to be able to develop, deploy or use AI in their role”.

Funding is for procuring AI skills training only, not for the cost of purchasing AI technology or software, business advice or consulting, recruitment activity, salaries (including work placement or internships) or capital expenditure.

Eligibility criteria for the fund

To be eligible to apply, a business must:

  • be registered and operate in the UK
  • employ 1–249 employees in the UK
  • be defined as a small or medium-sized enterprise (SME) per the SME action plan
  • have been operating for at least one year
  • be able to match-fund 50% of the cost of the training.

Businesses must also operate in a professional and business services sector (PBS) with one of the following standard industrial classification (SIC) codes.

M – Professional, scientific and technical activities:

  • 69 – Legal activities/accounting, bookkeeping and audit
  • 70 – Activities of head offices, management consultancy
  • 71 – Architectural and engineering activities, technical testing and analysis
  • 72 – Scientific research and development
  • 73 – Advertising and market research
  • 74 – Other professional, scientific and technical activities.

N – Administrative and support service activities:

  • 77 – Rental and leasing activities
  • 78 – Employment activities
  • 82 – Office administration and other business support activities.

The guidance indicates that provided applicants meet eligibility criteria and achieve a minimum pass mark on their grant application, funding is likely to be awarded via a lottery system – particularly if it is over-subscribed. This does not apply to applications that are not eligible or do not achieve a minimum pass mark on their grant application.

Timings for the AI upskilling fund

The guidance states that £6.4m of grant funding will be made available in the financial year 2024/25. Depending on demand, a second competitive application exercise may be run later in the year.

Funding will be provided to successful applicants for use only in the financial year 1 April 2024 to 31 March 2025. All funding must be spent by 31 March 2025 and following the terms and conditions set out in the grant funding letter and scheme guidance.

However, recipients won’t have the full term to spend their grant, as funding will be allocated via a “competitive application exercise”, which starts when the competition formally launches on 1 May 2024. The application window closes 31 May 2024, and applicants will be informed whether they’ve been successful at some point over the summer.

There are currently no further details on how to apply, but interested parties can register an interest in the fund and be kept informed of the latest updates and developments. They will need a gov.uk One Login account to do so.

On 16 April 2024, the government grants management function will host a Pre-launch Information Q&A webinar to provide more information about the fund.

What does ‘upskilling’ actually mean?

“Upskilling can mean anything from developing skills your team already has, or even starting from scratch, to building a clear understanding of how to use the AI and as a result encourage implementation,” Billie Mcloughlin, practice consultant and tech lead at 2020 Innovation Training, told AccountingWEB. “The key here is to build confidence in AI in sectors such as accounting because it has been earmarked as an industry that can really benefit.

“Now would be a great time to speak to your team and ask who would be interested in learning more about AI – these will be the advocates for future developments,” Mcloughlin continued. “Also consider doing some research into which areas of the practice could see the biggest benefit. Marketing and admin are popular choices or contemplate more generic use cases such as co-pilot for Microsoft users.

“Approved training providers are yet to be announced so it’s difficult to know what training will be eligible. Fingers crossed for more information before the application window begins in a few weeks’ time.’’

Government’s chequered grant history

Announced by the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT), and administered by the Cabinet Office and Government Grants Managed Service, the fund was initially trailed as part of the wider £37.5m Labour Market Evaluations and Pilots fund, announced by the Chancellor during the Spring Budget 2023.

The Flexible AI Upskilling Fund is premised on research that shows a lack of AI skills in businesses is hindering AI adoption, in part due to low investment in AI upskilling in UK businesses, particularly in smaller companies. However, all three studies quoted in the government’s guidance were published prior to the release of OpenAI’s ChatGPT in November 2022 – a moment that turbocharged the current wave of AI hype.

While the fund offers plenty of scope for optimism, when it comes to support for accounting services, the government’s recent track record is slightly chequered. 

The flagship Help to Grow: Digital scheme closed after just one year having hit just 1% of its sign-up target and costing the taxpayer £33m, while pandemic recovery grants turned out to be heavily restricted, resulting in confusion and frustration among accounting professionals. Accountants and businesses will hope that lessons have been learned from those and other recent attempts to support the profession.

Replies (8)

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Rob Swan
By Rob Swan
10th Apr 2024 12:06

Interesting!
Would be even more interesting if any AW members follw up and report on progress and results.
While everyone is pushing AI - latest shiny new thing - I'm sceptical over the longer term. Tax and accounting are prone to being jerked around by Govt. and legal changes and I'm suspicious of AI's ability to respond appripriately. I believe AI has yet to prove its true value, but what do I know...

Thanks (0)
Replying to Rob Swan:
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By FactChecker
10th Apr 2024 22:40

I started reading this as cynically as you ... and then it went downhill.

The killer sentence?
You "will need a gov.uk One Login account" ... this being the 'facility' which, as announced only last week, will only be initially available to those who don't already have a Government Gateway account.
AND "interested parties can register an interest in the fund and be kept informed of the latest updates and developments" in advance of "the competition (which) formally launches on 1 May 2024 (and) closes 31 May 2024".

You couldn't make this stuff up ... but DSIT thinks it all makes sense?

Thanks (4)
Stepurhan
By stepurhan
10th Apr 2024 13:05

I'd love to see the research that says lack of knowledge is what is hindering AI adoption. I cannot help thinking high profile cases where AI has produced less than stellar results (in one American instance, it torpedoed a legal case by inventing case references) is the main thing hindering AI adoption.

That and the missing detail (not even sure what training is available) makes this look like another populist scheme that hasn't been thought through by anyone. Perhaps there will be a sudden u-turn on this.

Thanks (1)
Replying to stepurhan:
Tom Herbert
By Tom Herbert
10th Apr 2024 14:50

Hey stepurhan,

The three studies cited in the government's guidance are as follows:
-AI Skills in the UK, Microsoft (2021); IBM Global AI Adoption Index (2022); Understanding UK AI Labour Market (2020) ↩

As I mentioned in the piece, it's weird that they're leaning on research published before ChatGPT kicked off the generative AI boom. Surely a healthy majority of folks will at least of heard of this stuff by now? There was something about AI language translation apps on the BBC News last night.

In any case, hopefully firms planning to do AI training anyway might be able to secure some funding towards it :-)

Thanks (2)
Replying to TomHerbert:
Stepurhan
By stepurhan
11th Apr 2024 08:57

Have you got a link to these reports by any chance?

I cannot help noticing that two of the three reports are published by tech companies. Forgive me for thinking that they might have a reason for designing a study that supports adopting tech. If I have found the correct report, then the third one appears to be a government Ipsos MORI report. The introduction to this shows it started with the premise that there were AI skill gaps to be filled (i.e. the "conclusion" was literally the basis for preparing the report).

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/understanding-the-uk-ai-labou...

With the case that AI training is actually a good thing suspect at best, doubly so when they haven't even decided what training is on offer, I think there are many better uses for these funds.

Thanks (0)
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By Paul Crowley
10th Apr 2024 19:35

A complete waste of taxpayers funds.If AI cannot be demonstrated by training providers to be worth 100% of the cost then surly they are not up to the capability required.

Thanks (3)
Replying to Paul Crowley:
avatar
By FactChecker
10th Apr 2024 22:30

Finger, meet Paul, he has somewhere he wants to put you.
Oh hello, Nub, we were just talking about you!

Thanks (4)
Replying to Paul Crowley:
Rob Swan
By Rob Swan
11th Apr 2024 10:44

Likely some Gov't, minister has a 'mate' who just set up a - dodgy!? - company offering AI training and can't get any customers.
Just a thought....

Thanks (2)