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Do accountancy qualifications matter?

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Philip Fisher's report on an HMRC-sponsored survey into unqualified staff led to great excitement in the community. In response, he asks the obvious question: are accountancy qualifications worth the paper they're written on?

24th Jan 2022
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Earlier this month, I wrote an article summarising the conclusions of a survey commissioned by HMRC into the behaviour and attitudes of what they rather prosaically describe as unaffiliated tax agents – those working in the field without formal qualifications.

The fervent responses of AccountingWEB readers suggest that many feel very strongly about this topic.

Conflicting views

There is every reason to believe that accountants with different backgrounds will have conflicting views on the value of qualifications both in terms of advancement of their own careers and the recruitment of staff members.

Some would not consider employing anybody without what they regard as a relevant professional qualification, while others would not be fussed either way and might even prefer unqualified staff on the basis that the salary bill can be substantially reduced.

The joy of qualifications

It is some time ago now, but I can still remember the joy of passing my final accountancy examination.

The pleasure was two-fold. First, it meant that I would not have to contemplate the horrors of studying further and re-sitting. Secondly, I realise that the world was my oyster, serious employers would think about taking me on and, quite frankly, my earnings capacity should increase by about 50% overnight. Happy days.

For many, getting a qualification means that they can escape the dull drudgery of life as an unimportant cog in a bland gear and branch out into a completely new and potentially much more exciting field, in my case tax.

Talent trumps certificates

After the first few post-qualification years, as anyone progresses through a career in accountancy, it gradually becomes apparent that initially A-level results, then any degree-level performance cease to matter. Though where you were educated might still be a stepping stone to dizzy heights, particularly if the CV happens to include Eton and Oxford.

Before too long, even when one attempts to change jobs, experience and talent become far more significant than nice certificates that can be framed and put on walls, which anyway have now largely disappeared from open plan offices.

Times have changed

Back in the day, qualifications were also significant because professional partnerships were effectively closed shops. Nowadays, with most practices structured as companies or limited liability partnerships, even that has ceased to be a factor.

Certain people operating in niche areas will still need specific qualifications. For example, this will be relevant if a specialist wanted to sign off an audit or liquidate a company.

One consequence of operating as a member of a recognised accountancy or equivalent body is the regulatory framework. This obliges members to undergo a certain amount of training and theoretically means that their work will be monitored. In addition, the unfortunate could find themselves subject to disciplinary action when performance fails to meet the required standards.

However, as so many respondents noted in connection with the HMRC survey, the quality of work carried out by large practices peopled by highly qualified individuals leaves much to be desired, while smaller operations often employ very talented individuals who are extremely good at their jobs, even if they do not have bundles of initials tacked as suffixes to their names.

A tick in a box

One measure of the attitude of larger firms to accountancy qualifications is the fact that several seem to take a rather unintuitive and disrespectful view.

If you are running a big accountancy practice in England or Wales, it would seem natural to steer staff towards qualification via the ICAEW given that the E and W in that acronym respectively stand for England and Wales. However, for reasons that have never been entirely clear, large numbers of accountants who may never have travelled to the far side of Hadrian’s Wall now become members of ICAS, where that S stands for Scotland.

This suggests that what should have been a premier qualification is merely regarded as a tick in a box and, quite frankly, many might think that it is a very expensive tick to obtain in that box when you consider the time and money invested.

Replies (6)

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By D V Fields
24th Jan 2022 22:55

Of course they matter because they demonstrate an appropriate level of understanding of a subject matter. There will always be those without a formal piece of paper who are qualified by experience and in some cases arguably better than those with. Any suggestion that qualifications don’t matter is nonsense. Ask the school leaver whether their results matter!

Until a few years’ experience is gained the “piece of paper” is often the only way for a prospective employer to judge. The view that any one qualification is better than another is disrespectful. If the view is then based on geographical location then I think I am more likely to disregard their judgement entirely.

The Bodies have a duty to maintain standards and that will ultimately be measured by the competence and professional standards of its members. This is both in the quality of work provided and conduct. The latter taking a battering recently!

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paddle steamer
By DJKL
25th Jan 2022 10:18

Do ICAS still train in house, do ICAS trainees still go on block release to the Institute premises in Edinburgh and Glasgow (Does ICAS still have premises in both cities) and does ICAS still write its own training material delivered by its members contracted as lecturers?

If yes ( and it may not be as this was state of play in the 1980s) this could be why employers choose ICAS as if I understand ICAEW correctly they outsource their training to private companies and do not have an in house delivery.

Of course ICAS these days may be similar.

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By waldorf
25th Jan 2022 11:26

Of course they matter but I do think they have been devalued. When I qualified (CIMA), I had a total of 16 exams of which I had to take 4 at each sitting, failing one meant having to resit all four, luckily I passed first time. Now, students can take one exam at a time making the process much easier. I understand ACCA allows the same easy process.

The consequence is that more ‘accountants’ qualify that simply know how to pass an exam rather than really know the subject.

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Replying to waldorf:
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By Dib
25th Jan 2022 12:46

I think this is totally back to front. Exam technique matters no matter how many exams are being taken at each sitting. In fact, my experience is that exam technique is more important the more exams are being taken at a sitting. Being able to pass 4 exams at a sitting just makes you better at passing exams, it does not make you a better accountant.

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By Dib
25th Jan 2022 12:43

No, not in my role. I'd far rather have a CTA or ATT qualified individual!

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By ASF
26th Jan 2022 12:03

I do believe professional qualifications really matter, but I would say that, if I hold one, wouldn't I? That said, they show an ability only to pass exams, and relevant knowledge, and only at the time of sitting the exams. This far away from that point in time (30 years now!), they are a very distant memory, and (as others have noted), the event was full of joy, relief and belief that my future career was just about to take off (as it in fact did, being offered an overseas family posting with my global MNC employer the very next day). Like many of us I am sure, I am eternally thankful that whatever life my family and I have had and continue to have, I can't help feeling it was only made possible by the foresight of my employer (paying for me to study and giving me time off), and my passing some exams. But, they are only ever the foundation, and the vital additions are experience, having a "learning" mindset and working to try and keep knowledge relevant to current needs, not those that existed 30 years ago. But the exams definitely did enhance my future career, at the time, and since, have always indicated to current and potential future employers, clients, colleagues, a professional approach and standard to the way we handle ourselves in business and work situations. I would not for one minute suggest these are not things that do not exist with people in the QBE fraternity, but the qualifications add that "extra something" to my mind. I for one, never had any regrets about working for them, even on those warm summer evenings spent with the books, instead of down the pub!!

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