Do you need university to become an accountant?

Christina Nawrocki discusses the age-old question of whether you need a university degree to become an accountant.

Reading time: 3m 30s.

Historically, students have repeatedly been told that the only way to become an accountant is to go to university. This is because a string of successive governments and school careers advisors have banged the drum about why all students should go on to achieve an undergraduate degree.

However, although this is a perfectly valid and certainly the most common route to becoming a qualified accountant, it is not the only option.

Despite record proportions of 18-year olds attending university, the rising costs of an undergraduate degree and the changing behaviours of young people mean that, according to UCAS, 72% are not taking part in higher education. This does not mean that they don’t want to pursue a good career, it’s simply that university is not for them.

Money is perhaps the main reason why many do not attend university, but it is not the only rationale.

Those who wish to enter the sectors of finance or business are, in many cases, also required to train for the ACCA or ACA qualification.

There is also the opportunity to earn whilst learning. By moving straight into a career, the young person is showing commitment to future employers, gaining valuable work experience that graduates won’t have, building key working relationships years ahead of peers and developing from the independence of having a job.

So, how does someone become an accountant without higher education first?

Alternative qualifications

In its most simplistic form, instead of studying for a degree, anyone looking to do accountancy as a career starts by studying for the Association of Accounting Technicians (AAT) qualification. To become a fully qualified chartered accountant they would then have to work towards the ACCA, ACA, or CIMA qualifications.

AAT is a professional membership body for accounting staff with over 140,000 members. AAT offers skills-based accounting courses and finance qualifications which can be studied regardless of age, experience or previous qualifications.

The minimum requirement for the AAT Access (Level 1) course is that a candidate must be 16 or over, but once this is achieved a candidate can progress through the qualification levels.

Those who wish to enter the sectors of finance or business are, in many cases, also required to train for the ACCA or ACA qualification. It is often considered a desirable qualification for other financial roles beyond these sectors as well, for example in finance teams of IT or engineering companies.

The qualification usually takes between three and four years to complete and includes up to 13 exams and 36 months’ experience in a relevant role, alongside the Professional Ethics module. Upon completion, a candidate will become a member of the ACCA or ACA and a fully qualified accountant.

Fees for both the AAT and ACCA/ACA qualifications vary depending on the level and the number of exams taken. However, there are many instances where a student will be exempt from paying fees, particularly for the AAT courses.

For example, if the AAT Level 3 course is their first equivalent qualification (i.e. they don’t already have A-Levels) and they are under 23 years of age, they won’t have to pay. If they are also studying through an apprenticeship, the employer may pay the course fees on their behalf.

In practice

Following GCSEs, if a young person looks at their skill set and thinks about what they enjoy, they can take a critical view of their likely career options. From there they can assess what further qualifications or experience they need.

Jasmine Brook, a young qualified accountant, didn’t go to university. Instead she studied the AAT qualification at college which allowed her to work at the firm at the same time, before she progressed to the ACCA.

When I caught up with her on the subject of qualifications, she said: “Basically, I wanted to do something that was practical and would offer a good career. I looked at the subjects I had liked at school and what I was good at.

“Studying and working as an accountant looked like the right move for me. Even back then I knew it meant I might not go to university like some of my friends. It was a difficult decision but one I’m glad I made.”

This piece will be concluded in two weeks’ time.


About the author

Christina Nawrocki FCCA is managing partner at Wellers


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