A Student and Employer’s Guide to Accountancy Qualifications

By Greg Broadbent on April 23rd, 2020

A career in accountancy can offer many varied and flexible opportunities in terms of the industry sector in which you might work and the location, both within the UK and globally, where you might want to work. At VisionFR we’re passionate about the marketing, media and creative industries which provide all of this along with a diversity of people, products and services that makes going to work, as accountants, all the more fun.

However, when embarking on your career in accountancy or when looking to hire someone into your finance team, there are a number of different qualifications presented. Having an accountancy qualification can certainly accelerate a candidate’s career and provides an employer with assurance over a candidate’s technical ability but what do these various qualifications and letters all mean?

There are several different accounting qualifications on offer and I’ve tried to highlight the principal differences below between the ones usually encountered in the UK…

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ACA – this is the Chartered Accountant qualification offered by the ICAEW (“Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales”; ICAS for Scotland)

Typically, although not always, an ACA trained accountant will gain their qualification within an accountancy practice. Students take their exams – 15 in all, modules including Accounting, Audit, Management Information , Tax, Law, Financial Reporting, Strategy and Planning – in parallel to receiving salaried work experience from their employer who also provides specialist exam training and support. Employers who provide such training and the platform for qualification will be ICAEW authorised. Internationally recognised, ACA is often viewed as the most sought after qualification in the wider business world and, to enter the training programme which takes a minimum of 3 years to complete, candidates will need a strong academic history (employers that provide the training will usually require a good degree).

Post qualification, some candidates will remain in accountancy practice aiming for partnership whilst many more will move into industry and will often be well set up to progress into senior finance and business roles (approx. 80% of FTSE 100 companies have an ACA qualified accountant on their Board).

The move from accountancy practice to a marcomms agency will usually be at Senior management Accountant or Financial Controller level although a good bridge into industry can be into a Group Accountant role within an agency group – this plays to the technical IFRS knowledge and consolidation experience that will have often been gained from audit in practice. Alternatively, if you have gained specialist experience whilst in practice, for example in Corporate Finance or Tax, then the larger agency groups may have relevant and attractive opportunities.

ACCA (Association of Chartered Accountants)

Similarly flexible as the ACA qualification in that qualification offers the opportunity to work globally in industry as well as accountancy practice and to specialise in different accountancy functions (eg tax, audit) . However, the initial entry academic qualifications are not as rigorous although a relevant finance degree will exempt you from some of the Foundation level exams – there are 9 Foundation Level exams followed by 5 Professional Level exams (with some choice of modules), covering similar topics to the ACA qualification.

Students will study alongside their current work and may find that their employer will help with study support (being a combination of payment of training fees, exams costs and study leave). Three years’ work experience alongside exam success is required for qualification.

CIMA (Chartered Institute of Management Accountants)

As indicated by its title, CIMA accountants have a focus on management accounting techniques within a business environment. However, the scope extends beyond this to include strategy, analysis and planning/forecasting and so can be appealing to potential employers. The CIMA qualification also extends internationally via the Chartered Global Management Accountant (CGMA) title.

The main notable difference with ACA and ACCA accountants is that the CIMA accountant is not permitted to practice in audit, so is not a limiter to those who want to progress within a marcomms agency.

There are several levels to the CIMA qualification:

Certificate Level (BA1/BA1/BA3) – CIMA Certificate in Business, leading to
Operation Level (E1/P1/F1) – CIMA Diploma in Management Accounting, leading to
Management Level (E2/P2/F2) – CIMA Advanced Diploma, leading to
Strategic Level (E3/P3/F3 + Case Study Exam)

Once the strategic level exams have been completed and supported by a minimum 3 years practical experience, then you will receive the full CIMA Professional Qualification

As for ACCA, CIMA is self-study at your own pace. Degrees and MBAs provide some exams exemptions and some employers may offer similar study support as for ACCA.

In our experience of the Marketing & Creative sectors, all of the ACA, ACCA and CIMA are very well respected qualifications and provide great scope for career progression both in terms of salary and job role.

Whereas an ACA qualified accountant is likely to have gained experience of the sector from within their client base in accountancy practice, the work experience of an ACCA or CIMA accountant, whilst qualifying, is likely to have included some marcomms sector experience and therefore progression into Commercial, Management Accounting and Reporting roles can be quite natural, and further development into Finance Director or Commercial Director roles is very common.

Other qualifications:

Finance/Accountancy Degree – this will have provided a good grounding but, as you’ll note from the above where they only provide certain elements of professional exam exemptions, they are not a substitute for any of the ACA, ACCA or CIMA qualifications.

AAT (Association of Accounting Technicians) – this is the entry level qualification and will take 2-3 years to fully complete (Foundation Level (Level2); Advanced Diploma (Level 3); Professional Diploma (Level 4) – Candidates with AAT will be well equipped to provide transactional accounting support through to book-keeping and management accountimg. Many will use this as the platform for taking ACCA or CIMA which will provide generous exemptions as a result.

Qualified by Experience (QBE) – Some candidates will have worked their way through finance departments and have learned on-the-job, improving their skillset and developing their technical knowledge through experience and learning from mentors within their teams. They are often very good accountants and team members, with experience of the nuances of accounting for the marketing and creative businesses. From a salary perspective they may struggle against their qualified peers and clients will often want to see a demonstrable qualification for more senior roles.

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