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Level 6 degree-apprenticeship: an unprecedented training opportunity

It is about time that aspiring finance and accountancy professionals had a degree-level apprenticeship available to them, which is why the Institute of Financial Accountants (IFA) is backing the campaign to introduce a Level 6 degree-apprenticeship into the UK marketplace, writes Susan Divall, education manager at the IFA.

The campaign, which has been proposed by Birmingham City University (BCU) senior lecturer Jonathan Mills, already has our backing, along with the backing of the NHS and Thomas Reuters, but it needs more support from employers before we can present it to the Institute of Apprenticeships early next year. 

Traditionally, ours is an industry offering a more restricted training pathway than other service professions, and is one of the few that does not boast a degree-level apprenticeship as standard. Surveyors, solicitors, engineers and many other service sectors already offer degree-level apprenticeships, which prove popular with potential trainees who favour them when compared with the cost of other courses. In accountancy, however, potential trainees do not have this option and must select either a university learning pathway, or undertake professional qualifications through a professional body. 

Both of these routes are excellent options, but also come with significant cost to either the employer or the student in a way that is not necessary in other sectors. Apprenticeships, on the other hand, offer a financially appealing alternative, with the opportunity for significant government funding towards costs.

When the apprenticeship pathways for finance and accounting were originally devised, however, it was felt that a degree-level apprenticeship was unnecessary and would prove unpopular – an assertion that the IFA feels is naïve and limiting to the profession.

Currently, anyone hoping to enter an accountancy or finance role, and wishing to take advantage of the government funding available, will complete either a Level 4 apprenticeship which is the equivalent of a first-year degree course, or a Level 7 apprenticeship which offers a postgraduate equivalent training.

Generally speaking, the Level 4 apprenticeship is suitable for those seeking an introduction to the profession and hoping to work in an operational or entry-level role, understanding the processes necessary to prepare accounts, with a focus on the administrative side of accounting. 

Meanwhile, the Level 7 apprenticeship achieves a postgraduate-equivalent qualification, and enables graduates to undertake highly strategic roles, particularly those requiring auditing capabilities. The problem is that neither of these suits a person hoping to get to the top of their profession while working with or in SME businesses, who simply does not need the complexity of technical skills such as auditing. 

The proposed Level 6 apprenticeship will provide two major advantages if it is introduced: first, it will deliver the full complement of skills required for the majority of accountancy roles, and it will provide a unique opportunity to design a course to suit the modern workplace.

Industry Changes

Since many of the training pathways were originally designed, the industry has changed a lot. There are new regulatory aspects that need to be understood, as well as an increasing reliance on technology.

The Level 6 apprenticeship will need to be developed with industry consultation, but is likely to incorporate Making Tax Digital (MTD), artificial intelligence, software knowledge, cybersecurity, data integrity, quantum computing, and cloud-based applications, alongside soft skills developed through on-the-job learning that are perhaps not developed via other pathways. It will be unique in this regard, because it will maintain all the technical content of other pathways, but add in aspects which make accountants work-ready for the modern industry – a win-win in my opinion. 

It is fair to say that the day-to-day accounting and finance operations of every sector are increasingly reliant on technology and systems, and it is here where we are seeing our members’ demand for training solutions. Businesses are reliant on technological assistance to process and analyse high volumes of data for decision making, and often accounts and finance managers are expected to be capable of doing this, but the training offered is usually technical and not technological.

The Level 6 apprenticeship will bridge this gap, helping trainees to understand everything from how MTD affects client technology processes, through to how they must handle heightened risks from cybercrime and data protection threats.

The Level 6 degree apprenticeship will also change the learning process and, unlike the existing degrees and accounting qualifications, will not be as heavily exam-based and will include systems technology training for the first time. 

The proposed course will still use exams to test technical elements of accountancy and tax, but will shift focus so that it also includes work-based learning in the use of employers’ own systems and processes, as well as core modules on cloud-based systems and the application of the latest technology being used in business for automation, artificial intelligence and quantum computing.

A focus will also be included for the soft skills required to practice, including consulting, presenting, discussing, debating, meetings, negotiations, team working and giving advice, so individuals are well rounded and ready for work.

Innovation

In our role as a professional body for SME accountants, we work closely with a number of universities including BCU. It connects us with leading academic research, fosters progress and innovation within the sector, and ensures that the needs of the employers are being met by those who are graduating. 

It is through these relationships that we connected with Mills, who believes that the lack of a degree-level apprenticeship is limiting innovation in what is a vital industry for UK productivity. His research has brought together students and employers over a number of years and the outcome is the same; that a degree-level apprenticeship will promote upskilling, encourage more people into the profession, and will also provide a viable route of entry to people returning to work or opting for a career change. 

He comments: “When degree apprenticeships exist for surveyors, solicitors and several for engineers of different types, it makes no sense that none have been created for a profession that is so important to businesses, and that can have a significant impact on the productivity of UK SMEs.”

The benefits do not stop here. For employers, having a Level 6 apprenticeship will mean a trained workforce that is funded by government, and team members that are qualified and motivated with the right skills for their role, as well as having work-ready skills alongside the processes that are specific to each practice.

It is the perfect blend of theoretical and practical learning, and from 2020 would be up to 95% funded for SME businesses, supporting small practices with sourcing a trainee workforce much more easily than before. 

Advantages

For the apprentice, there are significant advantages too. As well as the traditional advantages of an apprenticeship, including the opportunity to study vocationally, access funding without significant debt and learning while you earn, there is the added advantage that this is likely to be the first course to cover all aspects of the job role, technical skills, technological skills and soft skills, improving long-term job and career prospects. 

We believe that, economically, there are a number of competitive advantages that will make a degree-level apprenticeship as popular – if not more popular – than some of the more traditional routes. Unlike university degrees and chartered training, which come with a huge debt burden and which largely appeal to the 18–22-year-old student demographic, having an earn-while-you-learn option will broaden the appeal to encompass both those who are returning to work after a career break and those seeking to change career. 

What is more, it will provide potential students with a contract with an employer before they undertake any specific learning, encouraging entry into a marketplace which can otherwise be quite ruthlessly competitive after graduation. 

For a long time, our members have expressed a desire for an improved apprenticeship programme, enabling them to provide on-the-job learning, but at the same time supporting their employees to gain degree-level knowledge rather than just a foundation. 

We are delighted to be supporting a provisional bid to introduce a Level 6 degree apprenticeship, but also want to hear back from active accountancy practices and members in business about the relevance to their businesses and their teams. 

We feel that the Level 6 degree apprenticeship offers an unprecedented route to training, with the opportunity for up to 95% funding and 80% of the training done on the job, and so welcome this chance to support it. 

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