Taking the great leap forward. How accountancy exams are changing

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PQ magazine’s Graham Hambly takes a look at how the UK’s accountancy bodies are changing the way they assess their students

Some of you out there will, I am sure, remember the old Level 3 ACCA exams and the wonderful clawback provisions. Don’t worry, the final option papers today still regularly have pass rates of 32% and even 29%, so they haven’t got any easier!

But things have changed radically for ACCA students since then, and the ACCA is now taking the giant leap forward into computer-based exams (CBEs).

In September, the ACCA ran CBE pilot exams for papers F5 to F9 for the first time in parallel to its paper-based exams, with just 250 students opting to sit their exams via a computer terminal. For the December sitting the ACCA is hoping these numbers will be in the thousands, but it taking a cautionary phased approach to the introduction of CBEs.

Taking it slow but sure

The ACCA’s move to CBEs must have been tempered by the problems of taking the ‘big bang’ approach after the experiences of the AAT, CIMA and, most recently, CIPFA.

CIMA had to re-mark thousands of CBE tests and students who had failed were suddenly given a pass! AAT’s introduction of CBE was plagued by software problems for months.

The ACCA has also decided not gone down the AAT and CIMA routes of letting students take their CBE exams ‘whenever they like’. It has four session windows a year, which seems to be working well.

The ACCA isn’t stopping there, either. It is replacing its core P1 Governance, Risk & Ethics exam and P3 Business Analysis paper with a four-hour case study. So that means there are now just 13 papers to pass to get your ACCA qualification.

Another big change that has largely gone unnoticed is the introduction of a new enlarged Ethics and Professional Skills module, which will take over 20 hours to complete. That’s a lot of ethics.

Do you have the magnificent seven?

So where have all these changes come from? Well, two years ago the association embarked on a major global study to define the key qualities required for the finance professional of the future. You can read the results in the report ‘Drivers for change and future skills’. Basically, it concludes that there are seven clear ‘killer’ skills sought by employers. They are intellect, creativity, emotional intelligence, vision, experience, technical skills and a mastery of the digital world. They don’t want much then! You can even test yourself against these seven ‘quotients’, as they call them at www.accaglobal.com/thefuture

What seems clear then is the ACCA sees its new qualifieds as more than mere bean-counters. It sees modern business demanding far more from its finance team as automated systems provide the numbers, accountants will be there to provide the analysis (for now anyway!).

Synoptic assessments

There are also big changes afoot over at the AAT. The AQ2013 qualification is being replaced by AQ2016, although both are running together until the end of December 2017.

The 2016 qualification will introduce new synoptic assessments, new resit rules and more meaningful employer engagement.

The synoptic assessment is a sort of case study that students sit at the end of each level, just like CIMA students do with their case study exams.

Your AATs will also come with either a pass, merit or distinction. Oh, and remember unlike the fact you only have to get 50% right in an ACCA exam, AATs need to achieve between 70% – 79% just to get a pass.

All students who register with the AAT after 1 September 2016 are automatically registered on the new AQ2016 syllabus. At level 4 the new synoptic assessment means that students no longer need to complete the Internal Controls and Accounting Systems project. Over the past few years many PQs found the project daunting, and it could take months to complete.

Meanwhile elsewhere...

The ICAEW introduced CBEs many years ago to no great fanfare for its first-level qualifications. They have worked incredibly well, but now it wants to put all levels online. CBEs at the professional and advanced level will be implemented in stages across a two-year period. The first two papers at the professional level will move to a computer for the March 2017 exam.

But perhaps the body that has taken the most radical step forward is the public sector body CIPFA. Its PQs can sit their exams at home in their PJs on their own laptops. It even uses online invigilation in the form of online security provider Proctor U. But again, as we said earlier, the first sitting didn’t run too smoothly for CIPFA or its students. 

Making exams real

So CBEs are most definitely here to stay, and the challenge for the bodies is to live up to the promise that they will use the new technology to mirror the real-life practical experience of working accountants. What is important is that the technology doesn’t restrict how students are examined. The ICAEW has said it is introducing CBEs now to its higher levels because it does not have to compromise how it examines the accountants of the future.

• Graham Hambly is the Editor of PQ magazine. Go to www.pqmagazine.co.uk

This article is taken from “Accounting Practice” the ICPA quarterly magazine. Dedicated to supporting and promoting the needs of the general practitioner. You can find us at www.icpa.org.uk or email [email protected] or by phone on 0800-074-2896.

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