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ACA: keeping it current and fit for purpose

24 August: Without the ACA there would be no ICAEW Chartered Accountants. But the profession has morphed significantly, even in the last decade. What has this meant for the qualification?

ICAEW is many things to many people and organisations, but perhaps one of its most prominent roles is the designer of the prestigious ACA qualification.

Shaun Robertson, Director, Education and Qualifications, is an ICAEW member, former lecturer and has 14 years under his belt with ICAEW in learning and professional development (LPD) roles. His professional life has revolved around the ACA and similar professional qualifications.

“We look at syllabus development, we issue learning materials, we interact with tuition providers and we set the exams,” he explains. “All of which contributes to someone becoming a chartered accountant.”

The ICAEW LPD team is also mindful of CPD needs post-qualification. “We reconcile the ACA and CPD,” says Robertson. “We make sure we look at the syllabus every year and fully update it. It is always revised for tax, audit and financial reporting anyway, but we update it across all areas, including for things that are not far off but on the horizon.” 

This means there are certain new elements of professional practice that must always be included, such as any new auditing or financial reporting standards. There is no scope for being selective; key regulatory requirements must always be present.

“We’re running exams in 2020. At the same time, we’re publishing learning materials for 2021 exams and are also looking at the 2022 syllabus,” says Robertson. “We speak to a wide range of stakeholders to make sure the ACA is fit for purpose. That is a large part of what we do. We try to make sure the ACA is as relevant as possible.”

He continues: “Anyone can learn a body of knowledge if they have a good memory. None of us would trust a doctor who just had a degree but no practical experience. We make sure that when we look at the syllabus, we are not just looking at what students have learned, but also the demonstration of how they will perform professional functions. It is all tied into work experience. We’re training professionals.”

Accelerating changes

The future of the profession is always in the minds of the qualification setters, but so too is a need to be objective and refrain from outright predictions of what is to come. “The great leaps and bounds made in terms of technology and data science are reflected in the syllabus,” says Robertson. “We firmly believe that this is not a subject in its own right but one that pervades the whole profession. Technology should be second nature.”

Climate change and its implications for business is similarly present throughout the syllabus. Adam Birt, Head of Qualifications Strategy and Development at ICAEW, comments that the sustainability agenda has been embedded in the syllabus for at least the last 10 years. No one module deals with sustainability issues.

Professional scepticism is also increasingly tested throughout the ACA. “Last year we undertook a major consultation with our employers, students and other stakeholders about the future of the ACA, focussed on five key themes,” says Birt. “One of those was professional scepticism. When we go out to stakeholders with these consultations, part of the process is to remind them what we already do, as well as identify future changes. The qualification has to continually change to remain relevant.”

He continues: “We have three levels of exams and the second and third levels are all based on scenarios, then you get to the case study. The further you go through the exams, the less there is a right answer to the question. Therefore, students have to exercise scepticism about the information they are given.”

Data and life experience

Birt explains that the ACA is taking a further turn: “We are introducing more data visualisation and data analytics to encourage students to question the origins of data presented to them. Students will need to ask themselves ‘what is the validity of the data?’ For example, do they have any statistical analysis of the data to make sure they can rely on it and what it is telling them? Professional scepticism is a key theme we are heavily focused on, not just in terms of skills development but also in the exams.”

Of course, life experience can only help when questioning what is in front of a professional. ICAEW has always welcomed students from different subject areas – there is no requirement to have an accounting or business degree under your belt before pursuing the ACA. “We’ve always welcomed breadth of knowledge, experience and learning,” says Birt. 

“Increasingly that breadth has spread beyond just the recruitment of graduates. Now, because of the apprenticeships, there are increasing numbers of people who do not have degrees and come from different walks of life. That’s great for the qualification,” he adds.

Further development and lifelong learning

So, given the newer areas of focus, such as data science and climate change, and also given the new types of cohort, is there a danger the scope of the ACA could just keep growing? Birt reminds us that the development of the syllabus is overseen by our key stakeholders, who are clear that we cannot continually increase its size. “But, within the skills development aspect of the course, and this speaks to CPD, we are teaching students to continue their studies throughout their professional lives so that they can determine what they will need to know to perform the roles that they go into,” he says.

Robertson is mindful that two-thirds of members are in business rather than practice so the qualification has to be useful on both sides of the equation. “This takes us back to how we develop the qualification,” he says. “We don’t just talk to practitioners; we talk to lots of people. The qualification is as fit for business as it is for practice. The skills you use in audit are critical if you are working in a corporate.”

Birt adds: “There are three pillars within the syllabus. One of those is auditing and financial reporting, one is tax, and the third is business. You can’t make decisions in business without understanding the tax and financial reporting implications. They sit very well together. Our final level exams integrate all those different areas.”

Then, of course, there are the learning materials themselves which are undergoing a significant change. ICAEW publishes its own learning materials every year and Robertson says this creates a quality circle. “We set the syllabus and we have authors writing the learning materials that are approved by the examiner. When they write the exam, they must reconcile the exam with the learning materials so that when the students sit the exam they should have been prepared,” he says. 

“Next year we are moving towards making learning materials available digitally – that is partly a hygiene factor but also part of the sustainability agenda and it is to be more flexible on availability.”

That is not to say that digital delivery will result in a bigger curriculum. Stakeholders have been emphatic that they do not want it bigger. However, a new exam platform delivered alongside the e-learning materials will allow ICAEW to offer a fresh experience when achieving what has become a constantly evolving professional qualification.

All of ICAEW Academy's learning and development is accessible virtually. Find out more at icaew.com/academy.