Learning and skills: it’s not rocket science

‘It’s common sense, not rocket science.’ Some thirty years ago this was a
favourite remark of my training manager. It was usually directed at a colleague
who had completed a PhD in aerospace engineering prior to launching his career
in accountancy.

My former colleague would not have been out of place today. The Professional
Oversight Board in its 2008 review of the accountancy profession was pleased to
report that, ‘Student numbers of the professional bodies continue to grow
reflecting the health of the profession and the continued attraction for

The report shows that a high number of graduates are entering the profession,
but what is striking is that the number of graduates who hold a relevant degree
is declining.

Generalist or specialist degree

The Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) indicates that over the last
five years the number of undergraduates has grown by approximately 2% per annum.

Business and Administration as a subject area has not fared quite so well,
the increase is less than 1%. Within this the general business studies degree
has declined in popularity, while the number of students taking specialist
subject degrees in accounting, finance, management and marketing has increased.

A review of careers discussion boards on the web highlights that the main
motivation of students choosing an accounting degree is the potential to gain
exemptions from the professional bodies’ examinations, giving them a fast track
to a career. However, one sage-like student offered the advice of, ‘Do a degree
in something you like, not something that you’ll have to do for the rest of your
life’. Another suggested that doing something other than accounting would enable
a graduate to bring a different perspective to the work place.

Sound advice indeed as a report by the Financial Services Sector Skills
Council (FS-SSC) on graduate recruitment identified that, ‘Whilst employers
often seem to bemoan the lack of relevant skills, they continue to hire
generalist graduates. Specialisation is a trend on the supply side at
undergraduate level, but demand is greatest for generalists.’

Changing landscape

Changes in the landscape of HE in Britain since the 1990s have also
contributed to the focus of degree programmes on offer. The Further and Higher
Education Act 1992 created ‘new’ universities whose roots are based in the
former technical colleges and tend to be more ‘teaching-led’ as opposed to

Students are becoming more focused on the contribution of HE to their careers
following the introduction of differentiated fees in the Higher Education Act
2004. The Leitch Report, ‘Prosperity for all in the Global Economy: World Class
Skills’ published in December 2006, set a target of more than four in ten adults
being educated to degree level by 2020.

The skills debate

There has been an ongoing debate in the higher education press for several
years concerning the role of universities in employment.

Last year the Times Higher Education reported on the debate over where the
line should be drawn between the generic skills that degrees have always
provided, such as communications and problem-solving, and more specific training
for employment.
Professor John Brookes, Vice-Chancellor of Manchester Metropolitan University

‘There’s an interface between where [universities] provide education and
where employers provide training’.

The biggest problem is gaining agreement on what skills universities can
provide and what skills employers, or the accountancy profession want from its
graduate entrants. Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) must ensure that their
programmes comply with the Framework for Higher Education Qualifications (FHEQ).

The International Federation of Accountants has also set out in its i
nternational education standards the professional skills required by
accountants. However, in a brief survey of professional firms’ recruitment
criteria the interpersonal and ‘softer’ skills are
valued highly.

Forging Links

Despite the trend to recruit from a generalist background there is strong
evidence that the profession is taking positive steps to ensure that it gains
the skills it wants.

PricewaterhouseCoopers have linked with Newcastle University and the ICAEW to
offer a BA (Hons) Business Accounting and Finance. Similarly Ernst & Young
have partnered with Lancaster University Management School and the ICAS.

Universities are increasingly linking programmes to professional
qualifications and offering students the potential to gain exemptions from the
professional examinations.

New formats and providers are adding to the diversity within the HE sector.
Staffordshire University has recently launched a two year BA (Hons) Accounting
and Finance. Providers from the private sector such as BPP College of
Professional Studies are strongly placed to offer professionally orientated
degree programmes.

Communication and dialogue

Mr Rammell, Minister of State for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher
Education told the Times Higher Education that it’s ‘about clear channels of
communications between employers and universities’.

There is plenty of dialogue between professional bodies and the HE sector.
However, there is a danger that if universities do the job of the professional
bodies, degree programmes will become more akin to professional courses and lose
the distinctive sense of graduate-ness of which the British HE sector is so

If the graduates are to bring the necessary skills to the workplace it is
important that the profession continues to work with the HE sector. The current
evidence suggests that the education of the future entrants to the profession
will continue to produce a supply of strong candidates.

Graham Pitcher is an independent consultant in
professional and higher education and former dean of BPP Business School

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