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Author: ICAEW

Published: 30 Jan 2024

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At global healthcare company Bupa, a bespoke graduate programme ensures apprentices are well rounded – and well cared for – on their path to ACA qualification.
Founded in the UK in 1947, Bupa is an international healthcare specialist with 43 million customers and 82,000 employees worldwide. A group finance team of around 100 is based in the company’s London headquarters, gathering data from its global offices and informing strategic business decisions. With a range of in-house functions – including financial planning and analysis, tax, treasury, and financial and regulatory reporting – it makes sense for Bupa to home-grow its own finance talent. Kate Sweetland, Senior Manager, Early Careers & Capability at Bupa, gives an insight into how they have been utilising the Level 7 Accountancy Professional apprenticeship since 2018. 

We chose the ACA because it’s the most prestigious, internationally recognised qualification.

Kate Sweetland, Senior Manager, Early Careers & Capability
“We’re a big employer, so when the government apprenticeship levy came in, we wanted to use it,” explains Kate. “We decided then to introduce a formal graduate programme, and we chose the ACA because it’s the most prestigious, internationally recognised qualification .” Four or five Level 7 apprentices join Bupa each September, moving through three 12-month rotations over the course of the three-year Finance & Governance graduate programme. The scheme is relatively small for a business the size of Bupa, so in 2019 they also started taking on seven placement students each year. At the end of their placements, students are interviewed for a graduate role – those who are successful return for their final year of university with the peace of mind of a secured training agreement after graduation. “It’s a great opportunity for the placement students if they want to come back to Bupa – which, on the whole, they do,” says Kate, who adds that the relationship is a mutually beneficial one: “After we’ve had a placement student with us in the business, we know them and they know us.” 

Since 2020 all the Finance & Governance apprentices have come from the placement scheme – including Henry Michaelson, who completed his student placement year in 2020-21, and joined as a graduate in 2022. “The placement year really set me up for my career going forward,” Henry says. “Before that, I had assumed this was what I wanted to do – my degree was in international business, finance and economics – but until you actually do the job, you don’t really know. It also set me up well for my final year of university; I had the offer from Bupa, so I didn’t have to think about applying for jobs at the same time as studying. Plus, after a year of working much harder than I had to at university, that final year seemed like a walk in the park!”

To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have considered joining Bupa without the ACA being available as part of their graduate programme.

Henry Michaelson, ACA apprentice
The fact that the graduate programme offered ACA qualification was key to Henry’s decision to join, he explains. “To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have considered Bupa without it,”   he says. “I’d taken part in an ICAEW competition when I was at school, so I knew the ACA was something I wanted to do. Regardless of how things pan out with a particular rotation or your role, you’ve always got your studies and the qualification to fall back on.”

The programme is designed to give apprentices a broad and varied introduction to the business. Graduates rotate on an annual basis, often spending a year in internal audit or risk, or outside head office in the wider UK business, to give them a different experience from the pure finance teams. Students’ preferences are also taken into account when allocating each rotation. Having spent his student placement year in the Group Tax and Group Financial Planning & Analysis teams, Henry’s first graduate rotation was with Group Financial Reporting. Since September, he has been with Group Treasury.

Now almost halfway through the three-year programme, Henry has successfully completed 10 of the 15 ACA exams. “The addition of the exams is the biggest jump between being a placement student and being a graduate,” he says, “but from my point of view, none of it’s been too complicated so far. It’s just about dedicating the time towards it.” Partly that’s down to the supportive culture at Bupa, he adds. “We’re able to plan our time and our studying around work. So, crucially, my evenings have always been free to focus on revision. There’s been no pressure to get other work done.”
Kate works closely with the finance teams to minimise disruption when apprentices need to be out of the office on study leave or sitting exams. “We’ve been doing this for five years now, so our managers know to expect our grads to be out for chunks of time,” she explains. “As Henry says, on the whole they give good support for them to do their studies. We try to time it as well as we can – making decisions on exactly when they sit their Certificate and Professional Level exams, for example.”

As well as line managers who support them with their day-to-day work, apprentices can call on Kate and the Early Careers team for help with any personal or study-related issues. They are also assigned an ICAEW skills counsellor at Bupa, and a coach at their tuition provider. Being a healthcare company, there is also plenty of health and wellbeing support available, both physical and mental. “I’ve been here for nine years, and I think the culture at Bupa is brilliant,” says Kate. “It’s such a supportive, friendly environment. Most people really do live our values of brave, caring and responsible.” The culture is one of bringing the whole self to work – people are encouraged to be themselves, feel able to challenge the status quo and ask questions, no matter who they are.

We can really see the skills that the ACA training gives them, things like communication, being agile and adaptable to change, being resilient, owning their work and being good team players.

Kate Sweetland, Senior Manager, Early Careers & Capability
Once apprentices have completed their three rotations and met the requirements of the ACA and the Level 7 apprenticeship, Kate starts looking for the right permanent position for her newly qualified chartered accountants. It is fundamental to the programme that new roles are not created for graduates coming off the programme; success comes from ensuring there are enough positions for them to move into.  To date, two cohorts have completed the programme and moved into a variety of roles. “Our junior accountants are doing really well and are very highly regarded,” says Kate. “We can really see the skills that the ACA training gives them, things like communication, being agile and adaptable to change, being resilient, owning their work and being good team players.” 

Henry is already finding the skills and knowledge he is gaining from the ACA relevant and applicable in his day-to-day role – “more than I actually ever anticipated,” he says. For Bupa, the partnership with ICAEW is proving successful too, with the ongoing support of the dedicated ICAEW team and opportunities to engage with like-minded organisations via the business employer network. For Kate, it’s a “no-brainer” to make use of the apprenticeship levy, but the Level 7 apprenticeship offers so much more – giving graduates a solid foundation in all aspects of finance and ensuring they are ready for careers in a thriving multinational business. “The ACA was the obvious choice for Bupa,” she says. “It ensures we have a pipeline of amazing talent coming into the business – with the idea that some of these people will go on to become our next finance leaders.”

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