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Accountancy firms 'no longer elitist'

14/05/14

A new analysis of the so-called Big Four accountancy firms has suggested that they are no longer elitist in terms of who they hire and promote, with partnerships in fact serving as engines of social mobility rather than bastions of privilege.

Crawford Spence, of Warwick Business School and Chris Carter, of the University of Edinburgh, carried out the research.

They interviewed 32 people, some of whom were already at partner level. Others were aspiring partners, had retired, or previously failed to reach this level within a Big Four firm.

According to the pair of academics, the conventional and well-trodden path of private school, elite university and a well-remunerated role within the accountancy sector is no longer the route of many top partners.

"Partners in elite law firms tend to come from privileged backgrounds and elite universities. This is not the case with partners from the Big Four accountancy firms. Instead there was a preponderance of provincial university graduates from relatively modest backgrounds – aspirational working or lower middle class," said Professor Spence.

Many of the respondents to the survey were state educated and came from families in which they were the first member or one of the first members to attend university.

In fact, of the 32 people interviewed for the project, only three had gone to an elite institution such as Oxford or Cambridge.

"By way of contrast the children of accounting partners were privately educated and attended or were planning to attend elite universities," added the professor.

Interestingly, he highlighted a potential conflict of interest between the background of many partners and their traditional role as stewards of public interest and risk management.

Often their promotion came about because they excelled at chasing up leads and driving up income for their firm, meaning the old-school concept of 'technical partners' - excellent accountants promoted for their skills in this area - is fairly out-moded.

Communication experience and the ability to liase with a range of commercial interests are also crucial factors in the success of new partners, the study revealed.

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