The ICAS Foundation exists to ensure a person’s background is no barrier to a career in accountancy. We hear how it is working to minimise the pandemic’s impact on a new generation of students.
This article first appeared in ICAS’ CA magazine.
Accountancy is a career path that should be open to all. Yet, despite improvements in accessibility over time, there are still obstacles to overcome. Many see the profession as difficult to enter for people without a university degree, as well as for ethnically diverse people or those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Almost half of respondents (47%) to an Association of Accounting Technicians poll last year said that being from a low-income background was a significant barrier to becoming an accountant. For ethnically diverse people, the figure was 22%.
Many of these inequalities are likely to have been exacerbated by the pandemic, which has had a disproportionate impact on those less advantaged and has meant students scheduled to graduate in 2021 will enter a challenging job market. This has made the work of the ICAS Foundation more vital than ever before.
The foundation exists to improve awareness and accessibility around accounting and finance. Support can take the form of financial assistance, one-to-one mentoring, access to tools and resources and a network of likeminded individuals. During this time of uncertainty, its aim is to ensure that today’s students can access the help they need and that tomorrow’s know where to go.
As well as helping individual students meet their education and career aspirations, a long-term goal of the foundation is to ensure that accounting is a profession that is accessible to all. Regardless of background and regardless of ethnicity. We hear from three people – one student, one employer, one careers adviser – about the challenges the pandemic has posed and how the ICAS Foundation offers a crucial bridge for less advantaged students to enter accountancy.
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Fourth-year student, University of Aberdeen
At first, I didn’t know what I wanted to study at university. I’ve always enjoyed working with numbers and the more logical side of things. Studying accountancy and business at school brought those interests together and introduced me to accountancy as a career path.
I learned about the ICAS Foundation when I was applying to university, so I’ve been a part of it since I started my degree. They’ve been really helpful throughout the last four years. They check in regularly to see how I’m getting on and regularly share information to help my studies, personal development and life after university.
University has been very different in the past year and it’s taken some getting used to. I moved back home and most lectures have been through video recordings. Losing that face-to-face experience with friends and teachers was demotivating at times. The support of the foundation and my mentor have been very reassuring and helped me get through it. The student development toolkit that was put together at the beginning of the pandemic was especially useful.
The foundation introduced me to my mentor during my second year. We’d meet in-person each month before the pandemic; now it’s over the phone, but it’s just as helpful. My mentor has been very reassuring during this strange time and shares lots of advice and tips, in particular when I was applying for graduate roles. I received help on completing my applications, including my CV and cover letter, and developing my interview skills. My mentor also encouraged me to always ask for feedback following applications and interviews, which meant I was always improving.
There were times during the pandemic that I became quite stressed about getting a graduate job. It’s very common to apply for roles and not hear anything back. The foundation is important because, as well as regularly sharing graduate vacancies, it provides support and guidance about the process. And having a mentor meant I always had someone to talk to.
I recently secured a graduate role with A9 Accountancy, an independent firm based in Inverness, and I start my CA training in September. I’m really looking forward to building my experience and skills in accountancy and becoming part of the profession.
Head of Careers at Glasgow Caledonian University
At GCU, we have very good relationships with employers in accountancy and finance. The Big Four are part of our career events and use our job vacancy system. We also work with SMEs, bringing them on campus, discussing what they’re looking for and promoting their vacancies. The firms I work with do a really good job of promoting outside of accountancy and they try to capture the imagination of all our students.
The pandemic’s impact on accessibility is a big concern, especially when it comes to digital poverty. We became aware of students using their phones to attend lectures and write application forms, so the university made funds available to loan or buy laptops. And students not being on campus has a knock-on effect on employment because they may be unaware of job vacancies.
I work with the ICAS Foundation very closely. The great thing about its bursary is that it allows students to focus on their studies. Some work long hours, which affects academic outcomes. That’s why we refuse to advertise part-time jobs that ask them to work more than 15 hours a week. But it isn’t just about the money. I’ve spoken to students who have benefited from its mentoring programme in ways you wouldn’t typically think of. More than the academic challenges, it’s about having someone to listen and encourage. That support mechanism makes a huge difference.
The foundation is slowly building a community. Pre-pandemic, in-person events meant students got to know each other, whether first year or about to graduate. We had a foundation student who’s gone on to work with a big firm and still comes to GCU to recruit. He’s a great ambassador for the foundation and shows students of a similar background the profession is open to them. We wish more professional bodies had this approach to diversity. ICAS is putting money into doing practical things to support students. It makes a big difference to widening the talent pool.
I’m one of the founding partners of Consilium, a Glasgow-based accountancy firm focusing on SMEs and their owners. We’ve steadily grown from six people to just over 40. When you have your own firm, you can decide which causes you want to support and the ICAS Foundation fits our firm’s goals and culture very well, with its aim of giving opportunities to students who might not otherwise have the chance to get ahead.
I first learned about the foundation via Anton Colella, then ICAS CEO, when he visited our offices in 2014. Hearing about its work, I got in touch to ask how we could help. So, from quite an early stage in Consilium’s existence, we have taken on students for internships, generally for three months over summer. We’ve since recruited five foundation students to full-time graduate roles.
We’re delighted as a firm that we’ve been able to offer these opportunities. And we’ve benefited in turn because of the quality of people they refer to us. We run a competitive interview process and want to hire only the very best. Without exception, the foundation candidates have been excellent. They are highly motivated and have strong academic performance.
A number of our staff are involved now as mentors. We try to link the foundation students to employees only a few years ahead of them, so they can directly relate to the experience of going through university and applying for graduate roles. It’s been a really positive experience for both parties.
Without the foundation, many young people who want to become accountants might struggle to go to university or gain experience of how the business community works. The foundation does a fantastic job of exposing them to business – even having students stand up and give speeches at events. Those kinds of experiences help to prepare them very well for working life.
When I started in accountancy, it was hard to get into the bigger firms. Over time, that has changed and more doors are opening because there is a growing realisation that talent comes from a broader range of backgrounds. The ICAS Foundation clearly demonstrates that.