CIPFA disappoints Brighton faithful

Lacklustre speeches, half-empty meetings, complaining delegates: the CIPFA survive. promise of a CIPFA revival was hardly borne out by this year’s conference.

Instead, the talk of the floor was how long CIPFA could survive as an independent institute.

There was an undoubted sense of disappointment at Brighton last week, with poor contributions from some platform speakers. The atmosphere was not helped by last-minute cancellations by minister for school standards Stephen Byers, substituted by a civil servant, and former Neil Kinnock adviser Charles Clarke.

CIPFA had hoped its proclaimed revolution, begun last year by new chief executive David Adams, would put an end to the sniping and doubts over its viability. But the financial turnaround CIPFA needs is not yet complete.

As Accountancy Age disclosed last week, student numbers are continuing to fall, leading to financial losses. NHS trusts are rumoured to be saying that they see the supposedly harder-edged CIMA qualification as more relevant in today’s health service.

The perception that CIPFA now only services local government was reinforced at Brighton, where council delegates were in the clear majority.

Pressure is growing on CIPFA to reform its training in line with the modern-day needs of the public services. ‘We are putting all the pressure we can on CIPFA to make its training more commercially orientated,’ said a Midlands district council chief finance officer. He was worried that students are not being prepared for the more rigorous reality of Best Value.

Another senior council accountant who is also a CIPFA activist said what CIPFA would look like in five years’ time – or, indeed, whether it would still exist as an independent institute – was ‘an interesting question’.

There was nothing wrong with the quality or content of CIPFA’s training programme, he said, but there was a real problem of perception. Unless CIPFA could persuade students and employers that its course gave people hard finance skills, at least equal with those of CIMA, then CIPFA itself could be dragged down.

Nor was the conference a notable success for many of the delegates. ‘It’s flat this year,’ said another council treasurer. One councillor visiting from Northern Ireland for his fourth conference said it was the weakest he had been to, and that some of the speakers were ‘pathetic’. No-one that Accountancy Age spoke to – outside of CIPFA’s ruling elite – believed this year’s event was up to the standard of those even three years ago.

But CIPFA’s David Adams is a resilient man, and remains bullish about its future. CIPFA’s failure to meet its student targets for this year did not represent a serious problem for the institute, he said. ‘We always said that after the scheme had a complete cycle of students from foundation to qualification level, we would review it.’

It is true that the numbers are not as high as we had hoped for at the time it was launched and that that has driven up unit costs. As well as reviewing the scheme to ensure it is providing what was intended, we are anxious to drive down costs.’

‘We also need to ensure that we are competitive with the other institutes in terms of modulations and exemptions. Our courses must be affordable as well as relevant, and no more arduous for a student than any other comparable scheme. Proposals for changes are out to the membership and employers. We will take decisions in September,’ added Adams.

He denied, though, that CIPFA had particular problems competing in the NHS with CIMA’s qualification.

‘The NHS is not our major concern,’ he said. ‘Our concern is that local government is not training enough accountants. It is that part of our market that has been really dented because of expenditure cuts and re-organisation. In terms of market share, we are holding up well in the NHS.’

Adams admits that CIPFA does have a problem with the perception that CIMA’s courses provide more commercial skills. ‘We are training accountants not entrepreneurs,’ he points out. ‘You pick that up as part of your work experience. I think there is a perception among some students that the different qualifications provide different managerial skills, and that is just not the case.

‘All of the courses lead to technical accounting qualifications, with a degree of business management for whatever sector they are operating in grafted on to that.’

But Adams conceded the perception had led CIPFA to change course content.

‘We are sharpening the business management parts of the course to reflect the changing role of public authorities,’ he said. He added that speculation that the fall in student numbers was a threat to CIPFA’s independence was ‘wholly groundless’.

His reforms had succeeded in turning round the organisation financially, he said, and provided that staff met their stiff business targets, the institute was secure.

CIPFA, though, would respond favourably to any new merger proposals if the approach were right. ‘If anybody came to us and offered a merger on the basis of equals we would seriously consider it,’ said Adams. ‘We believe in the long term that the sector needs to be rationalised. None of the supposed merger proposals of the last ten years has been anything but power play.’

But what would happen if no merger of equals came forward? ‘We can prosper very well on our own,’ said Adams.

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