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!