Is your chartered accountancy qualification being devalued?
With membership numbers and the pace of change growing, the ICAEW, ACCA and CIMA must redefine syllabuses to uphold their qualifications’ prestigious status.
The latest stats from the Financial Reporting Council confirm that the UK membership of our three major professional bodies (ICAEW, ACCA, CIMA) has risen 30% in 10 years. With more and more individuals earning the letters after their name, it is constructive to question whether standards are being upheld and whether the qualifications remain as relevant as they should be in today’s technology-led world. It is vital that we challenge ourselves as a profession to maximise the business impact of the talent pool we nurture – my sense is that we’re now falling short in this area and that the time has come to take a more disruptive approach. There are two areas I believe we should be addressing as a matter of urgency:
1. Technology skills
It is time for the professional bodies to take responsibility for the hands-on technology capability of their students. The development of individuals in this respect is currently left to employers, with skill sets varying hugely as a result. This inconsistency risks damaging the credibility of the qualifications – there should be a base level of ability that anyone obtaining the letters possesses. I am not talking about rocket science here – the much-hyped concepts of blockchain, AI etc. get enough coverage from the institutes already. Rather, students should come away with basic (but disciplined) practical skills in three areas: spreadsheets, databases and programming.
This is not a revolutionary request: ‘Introduction to programming’ modules have long been part of some business undergraduate courses. Every accountant uses spreadsheets in some way, but many (maybe most?) demonstrate a lack of robustness in their approach. Confident data handling is a must for any serious finance department. By equipping our people with an official (albeit modest) level of skill, the effectiveness of our offering can soar (be that as advisors, auditors, stewards, business partners or leaders). I fear accountants will become less credible decision-making participants without these ‘hygiene factor’ skills. Having them will also prove an excellent foundation for those who decide to take matters further and specialise in the tech side of things.
2. Robust fundamentals
The second area I think we need to guarantee is students’ grasp of the fundamentals of the profession, the basics. Too many qualified accountants now lack confident understanding of debits and credits and are unable to naturally visualise the impact of transactions. This should be fluent, like riding a bike or speaking your mother tongue. It is as relevant now as it ever was – I maintain that the more complex the situation, the more imperative a solid back-to-basics skill set becomes. It is ironic that technology, whilst making finance departments unrecognisably effective and efficient, has brought a regrettable side effect in the form of reduced ‘coal face’ exposure during accountants’ formative years. Gone are the days of painstakingly building up financial statements from bundles of paperwork... but gone too is the rock-solid understanding this created.
One of the most frequent debates I see covered in the industry press is around the impact of automation on the profession and what its future looks like as a result. A conclusion tends to be drawn along the lines of: “We’ll have more freedom to really analyse the numbers, and our roles will become more strategic.” It’s a nice sentiment, but how are we going to ensure this and what should we be doing now to prepare for it, to evolve? Professional bodies can be cumbersome, slow-moving organisations and I am unconvinced that we are facing into realities with sufficient vigour. I expect an interesting sideshow to be an increasing divergence in the needs of different stakeholder groups – the gap between the requirements of a small-town accountancy practice and a big business finance department is probably wider than ever before. CIMA, being relatively free of these conflicts in its membership base, may be well placed to emerge strongly if it can make positive steps in the two areas I’ve laid out.
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