The future of accountancy education

The recent AAT Tutor Conference had a strong emphasis on the future of the accountancy profession, and the implications that this holds for the accountancy training industry.

The future of accountancy education

The recent AAT Tutor Conference had a strong emphasis on the future of the accountancy profession, and the implications that this holds for the accountancy training industry.

I was asked to sit on a panel considering the future of vocational education and the evolving learning landscape, joining Mark Dawe, CEO of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, Mark Mckenna, MD of Mindful Education, Rachael Johnstone, Section Head of Business & Professional courses at South Devon College and Adrian Fantham, CFO at Babington Group.

I was eager to hear the thoughts of such a diverse group of education professionals.

Steven Drew, Head of Markets and Products at the AAT, was our compere and asked some very challenging questions, which I give some of my thoughts on below.

How are apprenticeships shaping the educational landscape?
I feel quite strongly that the new apprenticeship standards are far more fit-for-purpose than the old frameworks. In the past many employers saw apprenticeships as little more than a way to reduce the cost of training new staff, whereas nowadays there has been a real mindset shift to viewing an apprenticeship programme as a valuable way of developing important non-technical skills in those individuals who may well go on to lead the organisation later in their career.

When I trained and qualified as an accountant twenty-odd years ago, the main priority of students, employers, and even the examining bodies, was technical competence. The syllabus knowledge required to pass various tough exams was paramount and there was only token attention paid to anything more ‘woolly’ (perhaps half a day a year at a country house finding out whether you had a red, blue or green personality).

When I look back at my own career it is clear to me that my position today hasn’t been particularly influenced by my ability to perform a bank rec or to consolidate a set of group accounts. Far more important have been the soft skills such as communication, teamworking, critical thinking, problem solving, decision making, negotiation and leadership.

In fact, I am coming to hate the term ‘soft skills’. It’s like ‘soft drink’ or ‘soft launch’. Like they aren’t the real, important skills. It seems so dismissive of these skills that I strongly believe dictate the direction and distance of a career.

I had to learn these skills for myself through a lot of trial and error, and I learned them very late in my career. To see some of our young apprentices being exposed to these ideas and techniques at the start of their careers, and in such a structured, reflective way is absolutely fantastic.

I think that university graduates these days have a real job on their hands to compete with some of the ambitious, highly skilled apprentices that are now emerging from some of the level 3 and 4 programmes.

One additional thought that many of the panel shared was that the word ‘apprentice’ carried a lot of baggage, and that the perception in the minds of many employers and parents is that an apprenticeship is a last resort for those who were not very academic at school. This couldn’t be further from the truth in the modern accountancy and finance sector. I know from my own experience at First Intuition how many extremely capable school leavers we see starting their careers through the apprenticeship route, making a deliberate choice to avoid the cost and debt of a university degree, preferring to get on-the-job work experience and practical qualifications.

What will vocational qualifications look like in 10-15 years time?
This was a long time horizon for Steven to ask us about. With the pace of change that we are seeing it is likely that the technologies that will be common-place a decade from now don’t even exist today, so it’s hard to paint a realistic picture of what education and training might look like.

In content terms, I would expect that there will be an even greater emphasis on soft skills (there’s that dreaded term again!). Perhaps it will flip the current model and we might see several weeks a year of leadership training with only a handful of days of technical training.

Digital skills will clearly be integral to virtually all qualifications, with the typical studier being already very familiar with these from their previous education.

Looking beyond content, I would like vocational qualifications to be bigger; bigger in terms of volumes of studiers, bigger in terms of credibility with employers, bigger in terms of the way schools encourage their brighter pupils to consider this route into the workplace. I think that this country has a charming, but rather out-dated, preoccupation with academic qualifications over technical ones. The fact that around 70% of youngsters say that they are planning to go to university whilst only 30% of job roles are forecast to require a degree helps explain why three-quarters of graduates are not expected to earn enough to repay their student debt.

In contrast I have seen school leavers come through the apprenticeship pathway, gaining two globally-recognised accountancy qualifications (AAT and then ACCA or ICAEW), managing their own teams at work and even owning their first house, all at an age when graduates are still in their 12 months at work.

A case study of one such apprentice who has used her apprenticeship programme to ‘turbo-charge’ her prospects can be found here.

How do the learning styles of Generation Z students differ from more mature learners?
Generation Z (those born from the mid-1990’s to the mid-2000’s) tend to be digital natives and this has affected their approach to learning in a few important ways:

They expect learning to be more personalised in terms of pace, difficulty and the media it is delivered through. Adaptive software based on Artificial Intelligence that uses data on student progress to tailor follow-on content is becoming more commonplace.

They are ‘multi-modal’ and like to experience a variety of learning channels, switching rapidly between platforms that give them access to wider and deeper sources of knowledge than ever before, both in the classroom and increasingly at home.

They are visual and hands-on so videos and practical exercises tend to engage them more than traditional lecturing styles. The lines between education and entertainment are being blurred; I found one of my children learning Latin Vocabulary from a hip-hop style video recently.

They expect instant resolution of issues and questions, making responsiveness a critical ingredient in successful delivery and happy students.

How is technology changing the role of the tutor?
I think a lot of tutors have already accepted that many of their students are far better with technology than they are (my default reaction to any problem with my tablet or smart phone is to hand it to my 9-year old daughter to sort out). The good news is that much of the material being absorbed hasn’t changed dramatically, but tutors need to focus more on ‘process’ and less on ‘content’.

Technology gives studiers access to huge amounts of information, arguably too much. Information overload can lead to situations when students turn up for class already well-versed in the subject matter to be studied, but seemingly unable to apply it. They lack the critical thinking ability so necessary to a successful professional career.

Tutors are no longer the ‘source of knowledge’ for their classes, but are increasingly more someone who can help their students to make sense of this data, to focus on what is important, to question how valid it is, and to apply it to real-world situations. I increasingly see the tutor as a tour-guide who signposts how the students use all that knowledge that is at their finger-tips.

I increasingly see the tutor as a tour-guide, signposting their learners to the most valuable content from that sea of information that is at their fingertips and helping them apply critical thought in making the best use of that content.

As you can see there was a lot of ground covered in an hour, and it’s safe to say that the future isn’t going to be dull.

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