Each qualification has its own merit for those seeking a career in accounting but there are key differences.
Each accountancy qualification on the market has its own strengths and weaknesses in terms of course structure and career focus. Arguably, the most prestigious qualifications are offered by the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA), the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW), the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Scotland (ICAS) and the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA).
So it’s important for anyone wanting to develop an accounting or finance career to research which qualification will meet their professional expectations. Some say, for example, that job applicants with ACCA qualifications will find it difficult to gain employment in front office areas of an investment bank, but that they are sought after by banks’ finance functions.
However, Louis Clark, who works at ACCA, says that his professional body’s qualifications “encompass all aspects of finance, including specialist areas such as tax and auditing”.
This may sound like PR spin, but ACCA-qualified Agnieszka Gajewska, a partner at Infralinx Capital and ACCA alumna, thinks Clark is right. “The course gave me a solid financial and accounting foundation. And despite not working in accounting for over a decade, that knowledge helped me develop my international project finance career.”
In contrast, employment candidates with an ACA – the qualification offered by the ICAEW – are usually gunning for a career at one of the Big Four accountancy firms. They are also often hired by investment banks to work in areas such as product control, and they can be employed in equity research or mergers and acquisitions roles.
Gavin Aspden, director of qualifications at the ICAEW, believes that his professional body is creating business leaders rather than book-keepers. “If we take the FTSE 100, about 83 per cent of the companies have ACA qualified people on their boards – and they don’t have to be chief financial officers (CFOs). They may be in other board positions.” He may be right that ACA prepares its students and members for any kind of leadership role in industry.
“I qualified as an ACA in audit at one of the Big Four, and hold reciprocal membership with ICAS. This qualification has shaped my career, first by bringing KPMG to my attention, and secondly by helping me to discover a passion for developing people – hence why I’m now KPMG’s director of professional qualification training,” says Michael Walby. He adds that his qualifications and experience have helped him to develop his commercial awareness, interpersonal skills and integrity. Walby now has responsibility for around 2,000 trainees, many of whom will be studying for ACA.
A key difference between the qualification lies in course structure and final exams. ACCA offers some choice in exams with options papers, whereas the ACA requires candidates to sit the same examinations at each stage of their qualification, and concludes with a final case study.
In comparison to the ACCA, the ACA exam focuses less on candidate ability to learn and retain information, and more on how students understand the information they are given and how they communicate it within the context of the exam question. They are also required to gain work experience with an authorised training employer while they study.
Walby believes that the ACA programme offers greater flexibility – allowing students to “dip their toes” into the profession. It also has plans to offer more computer-based assessment, following in CIMA’s footsteps. CIMA-qualified Joanna Blackshaw, assistant accountant at Overbury, says that “you can sit the first nine CIMA exams at any time of the year, while on the old syllabus the exams were twice a year plus re-sits”.
ACA students are able to get more time off and support from their employers than those who study for the other qualifications, and Blackshaw has admitted that studying for CIMA presented a real time and pressure challenge, which is certainly worth bearing in mind.
Importantly, she adds that ACCA, ACA and CIMA all offer the chance to work internationally. And CIMA’s partnership with the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants means that overseas employment opportunities also beckon CIMA qualified professionals.
Blackshaw adds: “Studying CIMA has definitely helped me to progress in my career – in qualifying, I have proven myself, and I’ve since been given greater responsibility in my role.
Despite the benefits each qualification can bring, they’re not the only route into accountancy. Top school leavers are, for example, welcomed by the ACA and KPMG to join either a training programme or an accountancy apprenticeship scheme.
But regardless of the path you choose, Bryan Foss of Bristol Business School says that students will still need to gain qualifications and training beyond the typical degree in order to build their careers.