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June 28, 2010

ICAEW gears up for ACA review

The Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW) is preparing for a full-scale review of its associate chartered accountant (ACA) qualification.

The review will seek to balance the needs of the Big Four with the needs of smaller practices and accountants in business.

It will also address the needs of the ICAEW’s increasingly international student base.

ICAEW education chief Mark Protherough said that when he joined the institute in 2005, the ACA was predominantly practice-based, with a relatively small number of students training in business and overseas.

The ICAEW now has more than 2,000 international students and more than 500 students in business.

Those numbers are growing quickly. For example, student numbers in Malaysia and Singapore are 20% higher now than they were at this time last year. Student numbers in the Middle East, where the ICAEW opened an office late last year, are 68% higher now than they were a year ago.


Big vs small

Protherough said one difference between students from Big Four firms and students in smaller firms or business is exposure to audit.

“This is a gross generalisation, but typically in the Big Four you will get quite a lot of exposure to audit, whereas in most small firms you wouldn’t touch audit anymore,” Protherough said.

“So there is a question about what the role of audit is in the ACA qualification. That is a big issue we are going to have to talk about, because if 50% of our students don’t work in audit, where does that leave the future of audit?

“I still see it as centrally important and it does breed attributes such as professional scepticism, but there is another school of thought that says ‘if your students aren’t working in audit then why should they be examined and tested in that?’.”

Protherough said there are no easy solutions to many of these questions, so the debate is important.

“The other areas of debate will be over areas such as sustainability and ethics – how important they are and how much emphasis we give them,” he added.

Another major issue will be examining the amount of technical content in the qualification. Protherough said there has been a huge increase in technical content during the past 20 years.

“Everyone is very good at saying ‘we need to have more of this and that’, but nobody seems to take much stuff out. We need to think about what can reasonably be studied over a typical three-year period while you are also working,” he explained.

The ICAEW is also keen to discover how the needs of students vary from country to country. The institute now has international offices in China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and Dubai.

“I think there are probably nuances,” Protherough said.

“Also, students prefer different ways of studying in different countries. For example, in Malaysia many students prefer to do most of their education full-time, and then go and get the work experience towards the end of their studies, or after their studies.

“That is one of the things that is different in that market and you have to start thinking about whether if they are studying full-time, does it create additional pressures in the classroom, because our exams are very practically based and if they don’t have practical experience, does that make it difficult for them?”


The process

The ACA review will take about three years.

It will begin this year with a consultation where stakeholders will be asked questions, including:

  • What do you think of the current ACA?
  • What changes do you want to see?
  • How is your business changing?
  • What things do we need to do to be relevant and helpful to you?

Once the feedback has been gathered, the ICAEW will draft prototypes of what the new ACA could look like and then road-test those outcomes.

When a consensus has been achieved, the ICAEW will develop the underpinning IT systems and learning materials and talk to the tutors about timetables.

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