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To continue to be successful, the accountancy sector must become more diverse. We need to attract people from a wide range of different backgrounds to finance and ensure they progress into top roles. Mark Farrar, who has recently been appointed Chief Executive of the Association of Accounting Technicians, tells us why accessibility to education and the professions is as important as it’s ever been.

For too long, there has been a keen emphasis on pushing people through the higher education system, particularly university. This attitude has contributed to the problem at hand: an insufficiently diverse workforce.

In 1999, Labour introduced a target of getting 50 per cent of school leavers into university. Since then, this policy has been criticised, as it worsened the deep-seated problem of class divide. Some schools succeeded in sending all of their school leavers to university, while others sent none. It certainly didn’t help social mobility.

Opening Access To The Finance Profession
Opening Access To The Finance Profession

15 years on, the legacy remains of the mind-set that university is the best way to get a professional job and an awe-inspiring career. But the landscape now is quite different and many degrees have been massively devalued. We are facing a ‘lost generation’ of graduates with little or no job prospects. Students are now asked to pay up to £27,000 in fees for a three year degree with no guarantee of a relevant job at the end of it.

Alternative routes into the finance profession

As the educational landscape is changing, we must change perceptions around higher education. Young people need to be informed about apprenticeships and other forms of on-the-job vocational training. Many of our neighbouring European countries, such as Austria, Germany and Switzerland, have created a system in which vocational education and university are seen as equal pathways into a wide range of jobs and careers.

High quality apprenticeships and other forms of skills development produce employees who possess the skills that employers want and need. In return, individuals gain a formal qualification, work-relevant skills and improved employment prospects.

Young people and their guides need to see apprenticeships as genuine high-value routes to achieving a high-status career. Simultaneously, businesses need to recognise that applicants without a university degree, can still have much to offer.

Independent and comprehensive careers advice must be offered to young people when they are making decisions about their future. At the same time, employers need to embrace their local communities and form closer links with schools in order to promote and encourage young people to pursue opportunities within their industries.

This would be a step towards a system that equally encourages higher and vocational education and would allow talented individuals from all backgrounds to be spotted at a young age. If we want a competitive, high performing country of highly skilled workers then it is important that we identify talent and nurture it so that we are ensuring young people nationwide have the chance to reach their full potential.

The benefits of increasing diversity

We live in a globalised world where businesses liaise with people from, many different environments and practices. Providing employers with people from varied backgrounds can help organisations anticipate and address their customers’ needs more effectively.

To produce a diverse workforce, we need to look at the root of the issue, education. My organisation, AAT, offers an Access to Accountancy qualification which is open to everyone, regardless of experience or previous schooling. By facilitating access to the accountancy profession to everyone, we are supporting mobility and providing businesses with diversified candidates with many different backgrounds.

Recently, the accountancy profession in the UK launched the Access Accountancy scheme to provide greater opportunities to talented students across the country with disadvantaged histories. This initiative will help give people with an interest in accountancy an opportunity that may have not have been available without projects such as this.

However, most of the headlines around diversity in the workplace have focused on the representation of women in boardrooms. The accountancy sector has been dominated for many years by men. Looking at the boards of FTSE 100 companies, only 17% of members are women. That’s why the topic of women in boardrooms has long been on the agenda, especially since the Government set the target of at least 25 per cent female representation on FTSE 100 boards by 2015.

Things are already changing, as two thirds of AAT students 34 or under are female. As they progress in their careers we are likely to see increased representation of women in boardrooms. Also, many organisations are committed to improving gender equality in the workplace with the launch of the Think, Act, Report (TAR) campaign. More than 140 UK employers are now part of this voluntary scheme whereby they report on progress on gender equality in their businesses, as they take action to promote equal opportunities

All of this means that we are heading in the right direction. More than ever, businesses are aware of the benefits of a diverse workforce. We need to continue to provide access to professions as by doing so we will cultivate a diverse pool of people with the skills, knowledge and talent that businesses need to prosper.