Accountant qualifications

Accountant qualifications

5 November 2021

Accountancy is a stable and potentially lucrative career. Accountants form the backbone of industry and business because proper management of finances is integral in any area. There are a variety of routes to learning accountancy, including different qualifications that can lead to becoming a chartered accountant.

Becoming an accountant takes years of training, often leading to admission to a chartered status via a variety of professional qualifications. Before this stage, however, would-be accountants need to take part in some form of foundational training. This can be via either a work-based route or a university-based route. In both cases, graduates will be eligible for admittance to a professional body and to become a qualified accountant after completion of their training.

University-based route

Many universities offer accountancy courses. These are usually named Accounting and Finance and can be in the form of either a BA or a BSc. Most courses are three years, and many offer an optional placement year between the third and the fourth year. Students are heavily encouraged to go on the placement year because work experience in an accounting role is so highly valued in accountancy and it is a competitive field to get into.

Formal entry requirements

Getting onto a university accounting course will require you to meet some entry requirements, but these vary depending on the university.

A Levels

The average A-Level entry requirement is BBB but it can go as high as AAA or as low as CCC.

Scottish Highers

The average Scottish Higher entry requirement is AAABB but it can be as low as BBBC. Some universities require an Advanced Higher with an average requirement of AAB.

Vocational Courses

Some universities accept vocational courses, such as BTECs, that are at Level3/Level 6.

In all cases, universities can accept students who don't meet the entry requirements at their own discretion (many do have a firm lower limit that they will accept in these cases).

Course Structure

Course Structure

Most accountancy qualifications use a mix of learning methods, including classroom learning, projects, workshops, and placements. There are usually lots of opportunities to learn from people who work in a professional capacity as an accountant, and many lecturers come from that background themselves.

The focus of an accounting degree will be on finances but it will also include learning about business. Typical areas of study include:

  • taxation
  • business law
  • financial management
  • economics
  • statistics for accounting
  • management accounting
  • financial accounting
  • financial reporting
  • auditing
  • regulatory frameworks

As with all bachelor's degrees, students will complete a dissertation in their final year as part of their course requirements. This often includes a practical element.

Benefits of an accounting degree

Accounting is one of the FAME subjects (finance, accounting, management, and economics) which makes it a desirable degree that can be used to springboard into a lucrative and successful career.

Most graduates of accounting degrees go on to work in accounting or auditing but others move into other areas such as tax advisor, stockbroker, or actuary. Those who do work in accounting will often either move into working in-house within a business or within an accountancy practice.

What happens after an accounting degree

Many people who complete an accountancy university degree move on to become an associate chartered accountant. This is achieved through gaining a professional qualification from an accredited professional institute, such as ACCA, ICAEW (ACA) or CIMA.

These qualifications entitle their holders to become a chartered accountant.

Work-based route

A work-based route to accountancy is a popular alternative to a university-based route. Rather than spending 3-4 years at university studying accountancy, people who go down the work-based route will usually go through a similar length apprenticeship that results in accounting qualifications.

An apprenticeship allows students to earn a salary while also gaining work experience and qualifications. This works better for some people than others and the entry requirements are generally lower than a university-based accountancy degree, usually two A Levels or equivalent.

Course structure

The most popular accountancy apprenticeship is from AAT (Association of Accounting Technicians). This apprenticeship has three levels that each provide different AAT qualifications.

Level 2 - Accounts Finance Assistant Standard

This is the entry-level part of the course. It usually lasts 12-14 months and it results in an AAT qualification of Foundation Certificate in Accounting. As well as the certificate there is also an EPA (End Point Assessment) that allows the student entry to the next level. This assessment consists of a structured interview and portfolio presentation as well as a test.

Level 3 - Assistant Accountant Apprenticeship Standard

This stage lasts 15-18 months but can be extended to 24 months. By the end of this level, students can achieve a Level 1 Award in Bookkeeping, a Foundation Award in Accounting Software, and an Advanced Diploma in Accounting. The EPA consists of a simulated test with business tasks as well as a portfolio of evidence and a structured interview.

Level 4 - Professional Accounting Technician Standard

The final level takes between 18 and 24 months to complete and if students opt for the AAT Professional Diploma in Accounting, then this allows them to apply for full membership to the AAT and the use of the MAAT letters after their name. The EPA consists of a role simulation with business-related tasks and the presentation of a reflective portfolio and a structured interview.

Level 4 also allows students to apply for chartered accounting qualifications to allow them to become chartered certified accountants.

Work-based route

Professional accountancy qualification options

Several professional bodies can award chartered accountant status. Some of these are more strongly associated with different career development routes than others. For example, a CIMA (Chartered Institute of Management Accountants) make the route into working in-house as a management accountant much easier. Whereas a professional qualification from the ICAEW (Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales) is more likely to lead to a career as a chartered certified accountant working in an accountancy firm.

AIA (The Association of International Accountants)

On full completion of the AIA, students are entitled to refer to themselves as international accountants, either as an associate (AAIA) or a fellow (FAIA). The course combines study, exams, and continuing professional development.

ICAEW (Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales)

This qualification is complete via ACA and is composed of a mi of professional exams and practical experience, as well as professional development and an understanding of ethics and professional scepticism. On completion of the full course, students are entitled to refer to themselves as a chartered accountant. Most students who complete the ICAEW go on to work in accounting firms or set up their own businesses.

CIMA (Chartered Institute of Management Accountants)

Completion of the full CIMA qualification allows students to refer to themselves as a Chartered Global Management Accountant. Most students complete the CertBA (Certificate in Business Accounting) beforehand. The course is driven towards financial accounting within a business setting and includes elements of business skills and techniques alongside accountancy training. And the chartered management accountant status reflects this.

ACCA (Association of Chartered Certified Accountants)

This qualification has a focus on financial services, corporate and business law audit and assurance. To complete the ACCA qualification, students will need to demonstrate three years of practical skills and work experience as well as complete 13 exams and professional development. The Fundamentals level is equivalent to a bachelor's degree and the Professionals level is equivalent to a master's degree. Completing the Professional level gives students chartered status.

Career options after completing accountancy qualifications

Accountants are required in all lines of work and there is a wide range of job roles that vary in their focus and responsibilities. It is relatively easy to use accountancy to springboard into a slightly different career but, within accountancy, there is enough room for movement and variety.

Working in the public sector

All public sector organisations need to be able to transparently present their financial performance. A qualified accountant can compile, analyse, and present these financial reports and aid public sector bodies in their finances. This can include budgeting, projections, and cash flow.

Working in an accounting firm

Accountancy firms provide financial services to clients and businesses. These can include accounting, auditing, tax, advisory, legal services, actuarial, and more. Many firms have a clear progression structure that allows accountants to have a robust and predictable career and pay scale.

Working in-house at a business

Many larger businesses will have their own full-time accountant or accountancy department. Qualified accountants can work within management accountancy, as a senior finance officer, an accounts payable clerk, and many more roles. There is usually the chance to gain more responsibility and higher pay over time.

Working at own practice

Many accounts choose to start their own accountancy practice. This can be a lucrative option that allows an associate chartered certified accountant to grow their business to as big as they would like it to be. There isn't as clear a career progression as there are in other roles but many accountants find great success by going it on their own.

Other accountancy roles

Other accountancy roles

Forensic accounting

Forensic accounting is the practice of examining accounts to uncover whether or not a business or individual has committed a crime. The crime can include fraud, embezzlement, bribery, or more. Forensic accounts use rigorous investigative techniques to find evidence.


Auditing involves analysing, reporting, and tracking financial transactions to determine whether or not they comply with rules and regulations. This can be done in-house or as an external auditor.

The bottom line

There is a lot of variety when it comes to accounting qualifications. There are different routes to entry, including university-based or work-based, and different professional qualifications that can be suited to different areas of accountancy work. In all cases, there is a clear training progression and objective and training to be an accountant can easily be flexible with work opportunities at every level.

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