New research backs up the importance of higher education in boosting social mobility and broadening the talent pipeline. Anna Melville-James hears how the ICAS Foundation is playing its part.
Education is a key factor in social mobility. It has the power to change lives and liberate potential. Recent research by the independent think-tank Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), commissioned by the Department for Education, has found that two-thirds or more of graduates from all socio-economic and ethnic groups are better off financially as a result of a university education. As Jack Britton, Associate Director at the IFS and co-author of the report (“Least advantaged students gain a lot from going to university – compared to what they would earn if they didn’t”), notes: “Going to university is still an especially good financial decision for students [from the poorest families].”
But equal access to higher education continues to be a work in progress – and in the case of those from low-income and disadvantaged backgrounds, students can come up against a complex mix of practical, psychological and emotional barriers to their own success. Democratisation of potential is something that the ICAS Foundation has been working towards since it was set up in 2012 to help improve the diversity of the pipeline in accountancy and finance careers. Aiming to address inequality at a grassroots level, the foundation provides support for academically talented students from lower-income families across the UK to study at university. This year it’s on track to award another 35 bursaries of up to £10,000 each payable over 4 years. It is progress ICAS Foundation Director Linda Jamieson is passionate to build upon. “I’m a big believer that your background shouldn’t determine your future,” she says. “And if you have the talent, you should have the opportunity.”
The importance of such opportunity, and the difference it can make, is seen every day in the increasing flow of talent coming into the sector from disadvantaged or low-income backgrounds. Since the ICAS Foundation’s inception, it has helped academically gifted students push past structural inequality to progress through their degrees, with some 125 students on the programme at any one time.
Crucially, the programme relies on support from ICAS to allow it to do what it does, as well as from individual ICAS member donations. “We award on the basis that we have the funds available, so students are secure in the support to take their degree,” says Jamieson. “Without ICAS members getting behind us, we can’t do what we do.”
Once on the foundation programme, students begin to understand how valuable a CA qualification can be. Opening up awareness and enabling students to visualise themselves in a future accountancy career is one crucial part of the process. “Before they join us, they might not even know about ICAS; they might be the first in family to go to university, or they won’t necessarily know any accountants to talk to because they’re not moving in those circles,” says Jamieson.
The foundation promotes through schools and universities, offering a window of opportunity to apply each year from 1 March to 31 May. Eligibility is based on academic talent and household income, but applications are context driven – looking at each student as an individual and taking into account the often complex variables that could be standing in their way. For example, they don’t necessarily need to be a straight A student to qualify for an award – achieving B grades at a school with a generally low achievement rate might indicate the kind of determination and innate academic ability the foundation is looking for in its students.
FEELING THE BENEFITS
Financial information is considered on a tiered approach, with many of the students living in a household with an annual income of £20,000 or below; crucially, students have to be studying accountancy or a finance-related degree. For the foundation as well as its students, the power of the programme’s success, however, lies not only in its financial support, which is a maximum of £2,500 a year, but in its attention to the individual and how they can successfully negotiate the landscape of the finance industry.
Students are encouraged to get an internship in their penultimate year and the foundation actively pushes out opportunities for graduates, showing them where CA jobs are being advertised. Alongside this, every student with an award is matched with an ICAS member to mentor them through their time at university.
Students may come from backgrounds where knowledge of finance or accountancy careers, useful connections and positive affirmation and support are not readily available. These monthly one-to-one conversations, about career aspirations, chartered accountancy and the options open to them, are powerful drivers on the road to success.
Information such as how to stand out, find their niche and get ahead of the pack is invaluable career-building advice that only those in the industry can offer – and it can make a real difference in expectations and career outcomes. As Jamieson says: “Just because you’ve got an upper second class degree doesn’t mean you’ll get a job – it’s these kinds of conversations that are important so the students really understand what they are doing. Having someone looking out for them is a vital part of the programme.”
Equally important is the ability to gain perspective and talk through any concerns, underperformance or other bumps in the road, instilling a sense of security that can keep the university experience open to them practically and psychologically. This support was shown to be especially important recently through the Covid-19 lockdowns, where ICAS mentors touched base with their mentees, who were often struggling to work in crowded or noisy situations at home, to help them to maintain focus throughout what could be difficult situations.
Mentor opportunities are promoted via the foundation website, on social media and through firms – and there are plenty of opportunities to get involved. Tellingly, CA mentors also tend to refer their colleagues to the programme too, outlining the huge benefits that they as well as their mentees gain from the experience, including sharper people management, emotional intelligence and a real sense of satisfaction from giving back.
As well as helping to reduce the barriers of awareness, finance and motivation, the programme is a powerful anchor for confidence, giving students the perspective and support they need to succeed in a future career in finance – a self-assurance that they might be unable to find at home. The mentoring can help them to ride out the inevitable bumps and challenges in their degree journey, and knowing they have financial support for the whole of their course is invaluable. The two benefits combined have meant that the drop-out rate for students going through the programme is marginal.
Ultimately, it’s an investment that pays back rich dividends, both for individuals who need practical help to reach their career potential, but also for innovation, greater social equality and mobility in the sector and across wider society. For Jamieson, opening up the opportunity and benefits of university – including the financial metrics outlined by the IFS report – to the widest possible cohort, and changing the way people see themselves and their potential, is win-win for the industry. The goal is to facilitate the talent the industry needs to move forward.
Jamieson’s message to the ICAS Foundation’s students, present and future, is a simple but reassuring one: “You’re not on this programme because you come from a low-income background and live in a disadvantaged community; you’re on this programme because we think you have what it takes and you’re among the best.”
The ICAS Foundation is a registered Scottish charity No SC034836.
You can support the work of the ICAS Foundation by donating, volunteering to mentor a student or providing an internship or work placement. You can also contact us to discuss a specific area where you would like to help.
This article was originally published in the ICAS CA Magazine, September 2021.