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Newcastle University's first steps into ICAEW computer based exams

Author: Olivia Taylor & Christopher Soan

Published: 24 Aug 2022

In 2022, Newcastle University is celebrating its 20th anniversary of the Flying Start programme in collaboration with ICAEW and PwC. Hear from Christopher Soan, Director of Education of Newcastle University Business School and Senior Lecturer for the Audit & Assurance module in 2022 as he shares the successes of adopting ICAEW computer-based exams into their programme.

Tell us more about the Newcastle University Flying Start programme

Into its 20th year, the Newcastle University’s Flying Start four year degree programme is a collaboration between Newcastle University, PwC and ICAEW. It is the most established degree of its kind and combines academic study with integrated paid professional work placements in PwC’s Audit practice which count towards the technical work experience required. Students progress towards the ICAEW Chartered Accountancy qualification, with the opportunity to sit 12 of the 15 professional exams needed to become an ICAEW Chartered Accountant whilst still having a fantastic University experience. 

What does the exam structure look like?

Students start on their journey to becoming an ICAEW Chartered Accountant from first year.  When they reach second and third year, students will continue their journey and complete the ICAEW Professional Level exams which also count towards their final degree classification.  Successful students will have passed the 12 of the 15 ICAEW professional modules by the start of fourth year.  Fourth year therefore provides our students with further academic experience and provides the opportunity with shaping their final degree class, safe in the knowledge that they are 80% towards being exam-qualified.  In the very likely event that they are successful in joining PwC after graduation, they will sit their final three ICAEW Advanced Level exams with PwC.  This means our students could be exam-qualified ICAEW Chartered Accountants, with a degree from a fantastic university, within four and a half years from starting on our programme.  With the technical work experience gained from their work placements, our students could therefore be fully qualified ICAEW Chartered Accountants within 12 months of finishing Newcastle University!

How did you prepare students for their first steps into computer-based exams?

Newcastle University was the first university to adopt the ICAEW computer-based exam for the Audit and Assurance module at the Professional Level in the June 2022 sitting.  This was a brand new initiative for students and academic colleagues and therefore planning started in 2021 with ICAEW.  It was vital to communicate the change in format of this exam to our students as early as possible and for them to have the opportunity to practice answering questions within ICAEW’s exam software.  That communication also ensured students had the opportunity to understand why we were embracing the change in exam format; they are a key stakeholder in the running of the programme after all.  We felt that the use of data analytics is something they would be using in the workplace and therefore had to be part of their teaching and assessment to ensure relevancy.  Following graduation, our students will also be sitting their Advanced Level exams in ICAEW exam centres at a computer so, by already having that experience whilst at Newcastle University, the way they will sit their Advanced Level exams will be less of shock to the system.

There was also the need for the lecturer to prepare fully for teaching this material, therefore forward planning and self-study was key to ensure an environment of informed lecturing for our students.

How did you introduce students to the data analytics software and digital learning materials?

Our students were not going to be assessed on the data analytics software until June 2022, after their first placement.  However it was important for them to understand what they would be doing at University after placement and to use any spare time over placement to get used to the software.  We therefore provided a full introduction to the software in semester one of 2021 and gave immediate access to our students to the ICAEW practice datasets.  When they returned from placement, we used our excellent PC Clusters to demonstrate how Inflo-related questions should be tackled.  Such question technique sessions were vital to allay any concerns that our students had, given how new this was to them.  The suite of mocks that ICAEW made available, within the practice exam software, was an excellent resource.  We gave our students the opportunity of an unseen, timed mock exam within a PC environment, thus providing them with every opportunity to practice in a safe environment, whether exam-ready at this stage or not. 

For Audit and Assurance, their permitted text is the Auditing Standards text which they were able to easily access within the practice exam software. They can also be purchased directly from the bookstore to view via their ICAEW Bookshelf, where they can add in their notes and annotations. 

What support from ICAEW did you have ahead of the exam?

As this was a new initiative for a university to take, we worked very closely with ICAEW to ensure this was delivered and assessed well.  Initial discussions evolved into a full work programme and involved the creation of an ICAEW exam centre specifically for Newcastle University as well as getting access to the ICAEW learning materials to enhance our teaching.  It was a true partnership which involved some creative thinking, a number of collaborative meetings and included getting ICAEW’s Director of Education and Qualifications to speak to our students directly.  It was important for us all that students were comfortable, probably unaware of the amount of work behind the scenes!  

What feedback did students provide after sitting the exam?

Students took a well-earned break after their June exams and we are looking to hold focus groups with that cohort of students to get a warts and all picture on the lead up to the exam as well as the experience on the day.

Tell us what the future of the Flying Start programme looks like

Change is inevitable and this initiative had to happen to ensure that the evolution of our teaching keeps up with the workplace.  Moving forward can only happen by taking measured steps.  The success of our toe-dip into the use of the ICAEW computer-based exams has encouraged us to build on this and the intention, albeit in steps, is to roll this format out to our remaining Professional Level exams.  We have proved that it works and, like the ICAEW qualification, things move on and we must too.