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Accountancy must lead the way when it come to equality of opportunity

The UK’s accountancy profession needs to change so it reflects the society it services – and a new ACCA survey highlights this point, says Maggie McGhee

March 2018

You would have all seen February’s edition of PQ magazine with two conspicuous words jumping out from the front page – ‘Social mobility’. It is certainly the buzzword of the moment, with government, professions and educational institutions being asked to do more to create an open access environment for people of all backgrounds. But what exactly does it mean? According to the Collins English Dictionary it is “a person’s ability to move to a different social class, usually from a lower to a higher social class”.
At ACCA, ‘social mobility’ isn’t just a catchphrase. For the past 114 years we have been committed to opening up routes to the profession that were not previously available. In 1904, ACCA was founded as a result of the ‘closed shop’ attitude to the accountancy profession. It is no coincidence that our first core value is ‘opportunity’, which falls right at the heart of our organisation. Diversity, innovation, integrity and accountability make up the remaining four values, which signify a dedication to creating a strong, fair society for all.
ACCA recently conducted some research around social mobility and the profession. Purpose and the profession, a global report which surveyed almost 14,000 respondents (53% ACCA PQs, the rest ACCA affiliates and members), found that the potential talent pool of professional accountants is changing. However, despite this change, the profession as a whole has a long way to go in raising the standard to continue to attract and support a diverse global talent pool through their careers.
Aspirational and accessible
The survey also found 52% of respondents came from backgrounds where neither parent nor guardian had gone to university. An overwhelming number of respondents felt that social mobility really did matter, with 92% of those asked believing individuals should have access to career opportunities regardless of their social background. The report highlighted a great area of optimism around social mobility, with accountancy remaining an aspirational and accessible route for many in developed and developing nations.
What was also really positive to see was that 74% felt ACCA was more accessible than other professional accountancy qualifications. ACCA’s qualification does not require a university degree and its flexibility extends to multiple annual exam sittings, to allow learners to choose an exam time that fits with their commitments. The online learning programme ACCA-X also provides free and affordable on-demand courses. designed to help individuals gain financial literacy skills.
However, it is clear there is still some ground to cover in making accountancy, as a whole, even more approachable. Similar tones were set by a piece of research conducted by the Bridge Group, cited in last month’s PQ. It found that trainee accountants were more likely to be successful in their applications if they were privately educated. The study also said firms should not solely rely on A-levels and online-tests being sole indicators of future professional performance.
‘Male, pale and stale’
Is everyone familiar with the accountancy profession and what it does? ACCA’s report highlights the importance of the profession working harder to engage young people with the opportunities and benefits it offers. Across the board, we need to instil the confidence in individuals that the world of accountancy welcomes those from diverse backgrounds and different academic levels.
ACCA research also revealed that only 13% of respondents were influenced by a career advisor or by a school or university teacher. This low number proves there is a large gap to fill in the profession being proactively offered to students. Commenting on the research, ACCA’s director of professional insights, Maggie McGhee, said: “The perception that ‘this is not for me’ is a dangerous stigma to be attached to a profession. Many still see the profession as middle aged, white and male… while this is no longer true, it is likely that only those with prior knowledge will appreciate the diversity of the profession and flexibility of access.”
It is evident the social mobility puzzle will not be pieced together overnight, but until then we all have a part to play in breaking down barriers and opening up the doors to talent irrespective of background. The accountancy profession needs to recognise the pivotal role it has in facilitating a holistic approach between business, education and government. Encouraging better data collection and interpretation on social mobility will enable an intervention which could make a difference and highlight where existing initiatives are failing.
As the profession continues to evolve within this new digital era it will open up opportunities to those with a different skillset and interest – those who may not have previously considered accountancy as a potential career.
• Maggie McGhee is ACCA’s director of professional insights

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