Accountancy and Management: Industry scheme falls flat: Ian Welch reports on a mixture of professional training and outside experience

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The Independent Online
AT A time when professional training is becoming ever more vocational it is perhaps surprising that a radical departure by the normally cautious Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales has not proved more successful.

The Training Outside Public Practice (Topp) scheme launched in July 1990 was undertaken to broaden the institute's appeal to graduates who wanted a career in industry and who were turning to the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants rather than go through a three-year training contract in the profession first.

But despite the apparent advantages of combining what many still feel is the premier qualification with industrial experience, only 10 companies have signed up for the scheme. One other organisation, the National Audit Office, trains two-thirds of the 85 current Topp students.

On the other hand, the much smaller Scottish ICA has attracted 20 companies, several of which are English-based. It currently has 39 students in its scheme.

Reasons put forward for this low take-up rate include the recession, exaggerated demand and poor marketing. According to an institute survey of 17 leading companies that had expressed initial interest in the scheme but had failed to translate this into action, cost was the main deterrent to companies setting up a Topp programme - not just fees, but the cost of trainees' and management time.

Allied to this was the objection from many companies to having training standards dictated to them by the English ICA's training office authorisation system, with no flexibility to use their own standards.

The institute survey did not reveal any concern about quality and breadth of training, but more than half of the members of the 100 Group, which represents the larger companies, were worried about whether it provided experience as varied as that offered by professional firms. Cost and study leave were lower down the list of concerns.

Of the companies surveyed, 64 per cent felt that chartered accountants could be properly trained in industry, and 77 per cent believed they would receive a grounding more relevant to their business than those using the professional route. This would suggest that there is a potential market for the Topp scheme. So why do the largest companies feel unable to provide sufficient training experience?

Ron Henderson, chairman of the 100 Group's Topp working party, believed that many companies were overestimating the supposed breadth of experience offered by practising firms to graduates. And he supported the institute report's conclusion that the experience 'problem' was largely one of perception.

'Many training contracts offered by professional firms are increasingly specialised, for example in tax. And companies are used to giving students experience in various departments - the major ones have enough functions to satisfy the training contracts,' he said.

It appears that marketing could be partly to blame for the lack of take-up. While the ICA seems keen to keep costs in this area down, the Scots have carried out an aggressive marketing campaign aimed at companies where one or more of their members are in senior positions.

Two London-based companies, Abbey National and the oil company Conoco, signed up for the Scots scheme and subsequently admitted they had been unaware that an English scheme even existed. But both also praised the speed and efficiency of the Scots ICA once the initial approach had been made.

But changes are afoot at the English ICA. For example, from the next academic year, centralised training arrangements mean companies will not have to go through the laborious process of gaining authorisation for every different location a student could be based in.

And the institute report itself accepts the need for a more flexible approach to be taken towards industry.

But even if specific problems are overcome, and the Topp scheme is promoted more effectively, some still believe that chartered accountancy training and industry do not go together.

David Lindsay, an English ICA Council member, and former group accounting manager with the construction group RMC, argued against the Topp scheme throughout the 1970s and 1980s, claiming there was no demand for chartered students in industry.

His argument was that the training received by chartered students would have little to differentiate it from that given to management or certified accountants, while the students would be isolated with no fellow chartered colleagues to turn to for support.

Seizing on the slow uptake of the Topp scheme so far, he said: 'The training is not unique. We are not offering a special product to a student in industry, except for some perceived attraction.'

However, others point to the specific roles or different training given to their Topp students. Steve McCormick, Conoco's acting employee development manager, freely admitted that in switching all graduate accountancy training to TOPP, the oil company was 'looking for a fast-track system'.

Meanwhile, Guy Woollard, senior recruitment manager at Unilever, which runs Topp schemes with the English and Scots institutes, said the company was now tapping into the pool of applicants that wanted chartered training but careers in industry. 'Topp gives us a competitive edge in graduate recruitment - industry has always needed chartered accountants of calibre, and some very good applicants would not have applied to us before now.'