Course selection is not easy in accountancy as all qualifications excel

Tom Welsh
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ACCOUNTANTS needn’t feel judged by their acronyms. While the ACA, the ACCA, the CIMA, and the CA all bear their own associations, accountancy qualifications are slowly shirking their historical prejudices. Nowhere is this more obvious than in their international recognition.

The ACA, offered by the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW), has always had the snob factor. Many think its kudos is sustained by accountants hiring others in their own image. The ACCA, offered by the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) is known for its internationalism and proudly advertises itself as for globe-trotters and the outwardly-mobile.

But this distinction is no longer so profound. ACA is not the only excellent qualification. ACCA is not alone in its international recognition. So how should an ambitious accountant choose?

Helen Brand, chief executive of ACCA, says its qualification is sustained by its global brand. “We have a global infrastructure and network of eighty-three offices.” These offices, and use of online learning, allow would-be qualified accountants the world over to study towards an international standard.

This emphasis on branding is significant. Alongside the practical educational benefits of a qualification “developed to meet global requirements,” its value to accountants is maintained by tie-ins with foreign statutory bodies and its reputation for excellence.

ACCA is not the sole global brand. According to Gavin Aspden, director of qualifications at the ICAEW, his organisation “represents members in over 160 countries,” and an ACA’s value is sustained by its “blend of rigorous examination and practical experience.” The same symbiosis of excellence, and promotion of that excellence through international ties, is at work in the ACA.

Being global isn’t an advantage in itself. The benefit of recognition abroad is mobility, being able to practice anywhere. Brand thinks it is increasingly important, not just for accountants in multinational corporations, but also for those in smaller companies “which are increasingly developing businesses through export arrangements.”

Zen Bawany, managing director of Maze Executive Search and Selection, says they are both accountancy standards “you can take anywhere in the world,” with a few provisos. Some countries have historical preferences -- the ACA is more useful in Australia, North America and Singapore. ACCA is “slightly better recognised in more developing countries.”

But this is a matter of degree, and the choice between them should be driven by the needs of employment. Bawany says the “ACA encourages a good control mindset,” a “natural managerial focus.” This explains why eighty of the FTSE 100 have ICAEW chartered accountants on their boards. The majority “qualify from top ten accountancy firms,” mostly the Big Four, which require an emphasis on external audit.

The ACCA encourages what Brand describes as a “broad base – you don’t specialise early in your career, and cover all the fundamentals.” As such, according to Bawalny, it is increasingly in-demand in large bluechip firms, or businesses that require “more rounded talent” in an in-house arrangement.

This distinction is likely to fade. International accountancy standards are becoming more internationally standardised. As Brand says, “being a professionally qualified accountant anywhere is a lifelong commitment to a code of ethics,” and regulators, governments and companies want to ensure that, in a globalised world, ethics are enforced consistently.

Although providing bodies will tailor their curricula to students’ subtly different needs, a high standard of professional recognition will still be essential in a global context. And a large part of that recognition doesn’t come from the qualification but from the professional membership that so often accompanies it. As Brand says, the certifying bodies will “strike members off the register” if they don’t maintain this professionalism.

The choice between qualifications may be one of degrees, but they are degrees within an internationally recognised standard of excellence.


Run by ACCA, 424,000 students worldwide are studying towards it, and 147,000 belong to the professional body.

Run by the ICAEW, eighty of the top FTSE 100 companies have an ICAEW chartered accountant on their board.

Issued by the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants, there are 195,000 CIMA members and students.

■ CA
The Institute of Chartered Accountants in Scotland has 3,000 students working towards a CA.