Professional accountancy bodies are the organisations responsible for accounting qualifications. That means they create curriculums, train students, and run exams. In principle, any organisation can do this, so how do you know which qualifications are actually up to standard?

The organisation given power by the UK government to oversee accountancy is the Financial Reporting Council (FRC). The FRC serves as an independent regulator of accountants, and decides which qualifications make accountants able to perform audits. To legally call themselves a ‘chartered accountant’, a person must be a part of a professional body with a royal charter.

Who are the major accountancy bodies?

The FRC lists six of these, namely:

  • Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA)
  • Chartered Accountants Ireland (CAI)
  • Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA)
  • Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA)
  • Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW)
  • Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland (ICAS)

These professional accountancy bodies each oversee their own accountant qualifications, which differ in the details but often conform to internationally recognised standards. Aside from passing the relevant exams, candidates must also have a certain amount of work experience to qualify as a chartered accountant.

Importantly, these professional bodies not only train accountants, but are also responsible for oversight of accountants. This means setting standards of work and ethical behaviour, as well as dealing with complaints about accountants. The professional bodies also do important work providing support, life-long training, and public advocacy for their accountants.

So what are the practical differences between these six organisations and their qualifications?

number of members

The FRC recognises all six of these accountancy bodies, but how do we know which ones offer the best qualification? Which qualifications are most wanted by employers? Which bodies offer the best support for the members? These are important questions, but the answers can be vague and complicated to find.

In the spirit of accounting and finance, perhaps it is best to let the market decide! And so, let’s have a look at how many accountants actually chose to study and work under these bodies. These membership numbers are taken from the FRC’s 2021 Accountancy Profession Report.

As we can see from the graph, ACCA has the most total members by a decent margin. However, this is for members all over the world. If we look at members in the UK and ROI, shown by the sections in yellow, ICAEW takes the lead. In addition, while CIMA falls far behind ACCA in global numbers, they come a close second for UK and ROI members.

These numbers suggest that the ACCA qualification is best for global recognition. This is a bit misleading though. The ACCA’s large global membership likely HAS more to do with the fact that ACCA trains accountants all over the world. Meanwhile, bodies like the CAI and ICAS focus more on training accountants within the UK.

Which UK accounting qualification is best?

The most important difference is which qualifications allow you to legally perform audits. For an account to be allowed to audit, they must have been trained by an organisation which the FRC lists as a Recognised Qualifying Body.

Accountants with only a CIMA or CIPFA qualification are not authorised to perform audits.

Without considering auditing, we can say that the ACCA, CIMA, and ICAEW qualifications take the lead. According to the membership numbers shown above, these qualifications are chosen by the most students and have the most professional accountants working under their name. Therefore, we can take a small leap and assume these are all seen as great qualifications by employers.

Best qualification for each business sector

But what if you want to go into a specific area in finance? All of these qualifications train accountants in a broad range of skills, but some do focus on specific areas. CIMA focuses on management accounting, where accountants work with high level management to create business strategy. CIPFA focuses on public finance and so many members will end up working in the public sector.

To get a more clear idea of what each qualification is best for, let’s again look at some statistics from the FRC.

Unsurprisingly, CIPFA has the most members working in the public sector. Similarly, it makes sense to see that CIMA has the highest percent of members working in Industry & Commerce. It is less likely for CIMA accountants to work in their own practices as they are trained to work inside other businesses. The other four qualifications have nearly identical membership numbers across sectors, split between Working in Practice and Industry & Commerce.

This suggests that if you want to work in industry, CIMA is your best choice. If you’re looking to work in the public sector, CIPFA is the clear winner. But if you want to work in independent accounting practices, there isn’t much of a difference between studying with ACCA, ICAEW, CAI or ICAS.

Which accounting qualifications are globally recognised?

Most accountancy bodies strive towards internationally recognised standards. The more they conform to international standards, the more the public can trust that they train competent and ethical accountants.

All six of the UK bodies we have been discussing boast their status as global organisations. But the best way to evaluate an accountancy body’s standards is to check which umbrella organisations they are a part of.

The first relevant umbrella is the Consultative Committee of Accountancy Bodies (CCAB). This is a UK organisation which coordinates the major accountancy bodies in the UK. All six major bodies were a part of the CCAB until 2011 when CIMA left the organisation.

Another relevant umbrella is Chartered Accountants Worldwide (CAW), which brings together accountancy bodies from 13 countries. These include ISCA from Singapore and SAICA from South Africa.

But the leading global organisation pushing for excellent, international standards is the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC). IFAC represents 180 professional accountancy bodies across 135 countries. That totals more than 3 million accountants worldwide!

Membership to IFAC requires high standards of training and work, and is an indicator of a top-tier accountancy body.

How do I choose the right accountant?

Choosing the right accounting service for needs is essential. Luckily, qualifications from these six accountancy bodies are all highly regarded. However, an accountant’s exact qualification is probably the least important thing to consider when choosing who is going to file your taxes or rescue your business.

Have a look at this blog post for help deciding what kind of service fits your needs. And check out this blog post for tips on choosing the right accountant for you.

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