Are accountancy exams getting harder?
Alex Miller asks tutors at BPP and LSBF whether accountancy exams have fallen prey to grade inflation, or have become harder in recent years.
Institute pass rates can be quite variable at paper level, but according to top colleges, there has been no significant overall increase or decrease in long-term averages to suggest that passing professional accounting exams have become harder or easier to pass than in days gone by.
What has changed over the last 15 to 20 years is that the number of exams students need to pass on their way to qualification has generally reduced slightly.
But Sue Hoof, CIMA programme director and head of the management accounting faculty at LSBF and a former ACCA tutor, says: “On the flipside, there is a very strong argument that says in the case of many current papers, the overall breadth of the syllabus has sufficiently widened to more than compensate.”
What has also changed over this 20-year time period is the amount of flexibility that is now built in to the progression rules governing how a student can plot a path through the exam matrix.
In the 1990s, CIMA students, for example, had to pass a ‘level’ at a time, made up of four papers; failing just one of them could lead to having to resit the whole level.
BPP programme leader Steve Malpass, says: “Nowadays, all the institutes allow students to sit a single paper at a time (in the vast majority of cases) with only the occasional rule to follow in terms of moving from one level to another.”
Another key change is the move towards computer-based assessment (CBA) and the introduction of what are effectively “exams on demand”. These again offer significantly more flexibility for students, allowing them to sit an exam when they want to (and you would assume, when they are ready for it).
As well as being offered almost across the board for entry-level papers, in CIMA the final Test of Professional Competence (T4) exam is now predominantly sat on a PC, with students submitting a comprehensive business report in Word, with appendices in Excel and even graphs, charts and PowerPoint slides.
Arguably these are tools that many students should be very comfortable with from their day jobs (more so than pen, paper and calculator) but it doesn’t seem to make the exam itself any less daunting for them.
The most significant challenge for accountancy students studying today compared to the previous generation, is the need to balance their studies with demanding work commitments.
The amount of study leave granted to students by their employers continues to fall and this is increasingly pushing students’ study time into the evenings and weekends - or sometimes even off the agenda altogether at month end and year end.
Malpass says: “The fact that overall pass rates have remained consistent for some time could well demonstrate that today’s students are studying harder to match the achievements of their predecessors, or studying more effectively under the guidance of tuition providers who have successfully tailored their courses to offer maximum flexibility and prioritised study guidance.”
This year BPP students achieved the highest ever overall pass rates in the college’s history, taken across all papers. The exam papers themselves may not be getting harder, but as Malpass says: “An accounting student today may well argue that the previous generation never had it so good.”