11. 04. 2024

Government fund offers accountants AI skills upgrade

Government fund offers accountants AI skills upgrade

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.

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.

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.

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