2019 saw a record intake of well over 9,000 new ICAEW students registering compared to only around 3,000 per annum in the early 2000’s. In fact, intakes in each of the last 5 years have been record-breakers showing that the relevance and appeal of one of the most prestigious finance qualifications in the world is only increasing over time.
Gareth recently visited Chartered Accountants Hall to chat with two of the senior ICAEW staff involved in the recent consultation; Adam Birt, Head of Qualifications Strategy and Development, and Fiona Hodgkin, Head of Client Relationships.
Adam started by explaining how different this consultation had felt compared to the previous one conducted in 2013. “Across the 2,200 comments we received we saw a high level of agreement about the direction we have been taking. Members we talked to were very happy, very supportive of what is being done. The exercise has really confirmed that the key themes already in progress are the right ones.”
I questioned whether technological changes such as cloud accounting and automation meant that accountancy trainees could ignore the fundamentals of bookkeeping and got a clear response. “Very simply, no they can’t ignore them. Technology doesn’t change the content and accountants must, must know the core principles. Double-entry is as important as ever, if not more so.”
The 5 key themes that have driven the discussions held around the country
At a time when accountants are often in the news for the wrong reasons, and when some people are particularly questioning the role and the performance of the audit profession, the way that the qualification develops and embeds ethical behaviour is absolutely critical. Students must be given the tools and the confidence to exercise sound judgement in the kind of situations they may find themselves in.
“We are going to ensure that the qualification helps students to develop and embed ethical behaviour at an early point in their careers.”
2. Development of skills
Adam and Fiona explained that the skills contained in the Apprenticeship standards that are now used by so many ICAEW Training Organisations are already covered by the ICAEW Professional Development Ladders, and that they still consider the ACA to be the gold standard.
“Although accountants are often accused of being ‘bean counters’ it is actually a people industry requiring a broad range of people skills. Being able to communicate, both digitally and face-to-face, is normally at the top of the list and is critical to a successful career. Team-working, adding value, problem solving, negotiation…all important too.
The ACA qualification is designed to develop and to test these skills within the exams but often students don’t realise what they are learning. We have put a real focus on clearly identifying which skills are assessed within each exam by giving allocations of marks, for instance in the Case Study.”
3. Professional scepticism
“This is an area we got a lot of positive feedback about; the need for students to exercise the twin traits of curiosity and scepticism when dealing with information they are given by clients.
We want to use the exams to put students in situations where they have contradictory information, or where conflicts of interest might be present. This will ensure that they can think and act in a more commercial manner.”
It’s been decided that rather than creating separate training looking at tech it would be embedded throughout the main qualification. Systems and processes, cyber security and data analytics will all be covered by students as they progress through the exams.
And it’s not just syllabus content that will reflect evolving technology, the way the exams themselves work will change incorporating improved word processing and spreadsheet function.
From March 2021 students will start having access to data visualisation software called Inflo. This is already used by many auditors and accountants. This will allow interrogation of data during exams and gives the ability to identify exceptions and create graphical representations of trends, patterns and variances. Students will be expected to consider the validity of the data in line with building their levels of professional scepticism as covered in point 3 above.
The ICAEW are also keen to take a lead on Sustainability by moving to paperless textbooks and question banks. This should save over 250 tons of paper every year! Learning Materials will be made available as E-books that can be stored on the student’s virtual bookshelf alongside their FI course notes. The material will even act as an audiobook if students would like it read to them!
5. Technical knowledge
As already highlighted above there will still be a focus on basic knowledge and technical expertise. The ICAEW will be looking more at the delivery of Technical Knowledge, for instance with the online materials already mentioned.
I sometimes come across students who question whether they really need to learn the huge range of material they cover, often in a great level of detail. Adam picks up this point saying “it’s true that qualified ACA’s don’t always use all the technical knowledge they study but the key is the way of thinking that the qualification trains you to use; the analytical abilities of weighing up complex options and making a reasoned decision.”
Adam neatly summarised the objective underlying all the other themes:
“The ACA is the Gold standard, and this evolution will ensure that remains the case”.
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