Do you need to go to University?

Do you need to go to University?

With the debate raging about university and tuition fees it brought back to me some very personal issues – therefore I thought I’d blog about it! It’s a bit longer than usual so bear with me.

I am forever getting asked (I say that, probably not so much now I am a bit older!) ‘What University did you go to?’ I always feel amused at the look on people’s face when I say that I didn’t! The next question inevitably comes ‘How are you an accountant?’. So, let me explain

You don’t have to go to University to become an accountant!

I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to do when I left school; however, I knew it was within business somehow. I therefore studied a 2 year GNVQ in business studies at Cornwall College – note, instead of doing A-levels! To be honest the course was relatively straightforward and I passed quite easily without having to put too much effort in. That is not to say it is the same for all!

I then had to decide what I wanted to do – the choices were simple, University or go to Work? My parents could not really afford to send me to university and it wasn’t something that particularly appealed to me. I spotted an advert in my local paper for an accounts trainee position as a Modern Apprentice at Ward Ohly, a local practice in Falmouth, Cornwall. There my journey began.

As a modern apprentice I started on a very low salary but was able to do a qualification alongside it. This was the Association of Accounting Technicians (AAT) course. Effectively 1 day a week attending Cornwall College. I started at intermediate level as my previous qualification gave me an exemption from level one. The best part about it was that I didn’t have to pay any course/ exam/ membership fees as this was paid by my employer. As well as that I got my travel cost back too (great on my little moped at the time!).

Alongside the examination element of the course there are practical work based learning criteria that needs to be achieved. This helps with skills required in the workplace and gives additional training in other areas of the business.

To top up my money I also had a couple of other jobs, one in a hotel and then bar work in a local pub. I could therefore afford to move out of home.

So, lets recap, I’m studying for free, getting paid and enjoying life outside of work as I have money to spend!

Moving back to my own story, I passed the intermediate level AAT quite easily. When it came to technician; however, I found this a bit tougher. Probably not relevant to the story but I flunked it first time around – I was having too much fun and it was the 1998 World Cup summer when I took my exams.

As a result I decided to move on to a new firm and joined Winter Rule (temping at another firm in between). I was actually starting to earn decent money for the first time and again studying towards my Technician level AAT. They were the perfect sponsor for me and got me through the exams and fully AAT qualified.

This gave me the impetus to really springboard my career and move on to the next stage. Whilst at Winter Rule, I found myself specialising in their legal sector, working on Solicitor clients. At the time I felt the urge to move on and wanted to get out of Cornwall and was able to find a job in Cheltenham at Hazlewoods. The grounding that Winter Rule gave me was perfect to join their corporate services team and again work with legal sector clients. The thing that really appealed for Hazlewoods was that they were prepared to put me on the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) course.

This was over three years; however the study route is slightly different. It was block release so I would attend courses for week or two blocks throughout the year, with a lot of home study in between. Again, this is all sponsored by the employer. They cover the cost of exams, membership, travel etc. The studies were at BPP in Bristol, a specialist in Accountancy training (and other professions).

Its not all great, one big downside here I found was that I found that due to my experience, I was taking graduate trainees (people from University doing their Chartered Accountant studies) out to clients as their effective senior, knowing they were getting paid more than me – just because they went to university. I soon corrected that by discussing with my manager and partner the unfairness of it; you know what, they gave me a pay rise to match.

So I pass the exams, do the practical experience that goes alongside it and hey presto – I’m a Chartered Certified Accountant, without having to go to university. The long term experience I have has now put me in an ideal position to set up and run my own accounting firm.

Ok Phil, get to the point and summarise it! Here goes:

  • Apprentices work so get paid – albeit a lower salary but you’d have to take on some low paid work if sudying at Uni
  • Study is paid for you – employers cover the costs of attending college
  • In some cases can achieve professional qualifications quicker – If I had really got my backside in gear I could have been a Chartered Certified accountant by the time I was 23.
  • Work experience – you are learning your trade as you are going. It actually makes you better equipped than some Uni graduates. This is a great attribute when seeking and competing for work.
  • Move away – still live the university lifestyle by getting a job outside your normal living boundaries.
  • Have fun – you’ve got the money to go and have a couple of beers (just don’t forget you have work the next day!)

I would just clarify that this wouldn’t necessarily apply to every career choice but it is worth exploring the options available. With the cost of tuition fees likely to increase why not look at an apprenticeship as a genuinely viable career opportunity.

If anyone wants any information on how to make an apprenticeship work for you, please give me a shout. Some basic tips for people looking to do an apprenticeship (in accounting) would be:

  • Check local papers for trainee job positions
  • Ask local accounting firms if they have any vacancies
  • Check the websites of the professional organisations mentioned above
  • Visit the local colleges/ training centres who may know of vacancies and courses available
  • Speak to me and I’ll see if I can help!

11 thoughts on “Do you need to go to University?

  1. Thought provoking post Phil. Pleased to say apprenticeships are alive and well up here with Glos with Gloucestershire College this year running their 100inOneHundred challenge to raise the profile of apprenticeships across the county and to increase the number of apprenticeship placements available to young people by 100 in 100 days.

    My client Stuart Holmes Hair & Beauty Spa in Cheltenham supported this campaign and has always been a firm believer in the value of apprenticeships. So much so that last week they won Apprentice Development Award 2010 at the Glos Business Awards.

    / Ps. I didn’t go to uni either!

  2. Thanks for the comment Julian. Good to see your client, Stuart Holmes, thriving too – its a very competive industry, especially in Cheltenham.

  3. To be honest I am not going to encourage or discourage my kids when it comes to Uni. Personally I think its overrated and you are better off working and getting a head start in life.

  4. Good post Phil.
    You are so right. Many people go to Uni to get a degree not a career. I know people who got a music degree because they were musically inclined and then both went into financial services waving the degree about as though had it had bearing on the job!!!!
    There are also too many courses at universities today that could be taught in a very short time on the job or at technical colleges.
    I’d better stop now before I really start ranting!


  5. Very relevant blog. Sounds quite similar to how I qualified, except that I did CIMA.

    I couldn’t agree with you more about apprenticeships, we’ve just taken our first apprentice on. Not for cheap labour – it involves an element of investment by all staff – but to give someone an opportunity to gain relevant experience and study.

    To touch on Roland’s point, when I was in industry, we were audited by Arthur Anderson, and the juniors they sent had little idea. Most seemed to have done History degrees!

    I still have 7 years before my own children will start making the choice, but cannot think that huge levels of debt really make it worthwhile.

  6. Phil an interesting post,
    I just want your opinion. I am currently at University but want to leave to pursue an apprenticeship in accounting as i have realised that this is what I want to do and would prefer to do it this way. Do you think that i would be able to eventhough I would be classed as a ‘drop out’?

  7. Holly, that is a difficult decision to make.

    Perhaps the best way to pursue this would be to search for employment before ‘dropping out’. Explain to your potential employer your reasons for doing it this way and what your future plans/ ambitions are.

  8. Interesting post Phil. Couldn’t work out how to contact you directly so hope you see this! Basically I’m half way through my second year of a-levels and I am interesting in accountancy as a career. There are a couple of firms near me who offer the AAT qualification which I am thinking of applying for once I finish, but the wages seem pretty low. Is it best just to spend roughly a year completing the qualification with maybe another job to top up wages?

  9. The wages will be a bit low but if you get the right practice they will support you through your studies. The best scenario is to look at the apprenticeship route as you will get study support for the employer as well. The qualification will take at least two and probably three years to fully complete, depending where you are able to start.

    When I first started many moons ago I had a second job Kitchen Portering in a hotel and also did a bit of bar work!!!

    Have a look at the Contact Us page if you want any further advice and I will be happy to have a chat with you.

  10. Hi Phil. I also would like to do accountancy but am not sure whether to go to uni or take an apprenticeship.

    I’m not bothered about missing out on the social aspect of university as i’m not a great party go-er myself.

    However i’ve heard that you get paid more if you have a degree compared to having an apprenticeship, is this true?

  11. At certain stages of training the issue of pay may vary between degree and apprenticeship; however, you need to show your worth and value to your employer. When I was doing my training I realised I was taking graduates out on jobs and training them, although they were being paid significantly more than me. Raised this with my boss and said they are being paid more, they should be training me – cue pay rise to match to that level!

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