An auditor verifies the accuracy of financial reports/statements. A big part of the work is to cross check the accounts against the reports produced and this is tedious work indeed. This I'd an important task because an auditor will inform the public through his/her verification that the statement/report can be trusted and they can make informed choices about investing with the company etc.
An accountant prepares the reports and manages the account of a company. He/she ensures the account is balanced, ie every transaction is supported by proof of record and there are no hidden/missing funds. They are able to make financial decisions by analyzing the accounts and providing insight on fund management which is best employed for the company's well being.
A consultant is a broad term, sometimes unpleasantly referred to as constituents of the mop-up crew. Companies engage consultants to perform analysis and provide advice to solve particular issues/problems. Since the problems are typically case-specific, consultants will always face new and unique situations.
1) Professional certification
A professional cert is almost a basic requirement these days and students know it. This year about 424000 students are registered with ACCA worldwide. Recognized bodies include ACCA, ICAEW and CPA among others. They're fuss-free and typically focuses on practical and technical aspects of the job. One can self-study or enroll in tuition. Exams are held twice a year, maximum 4 papers per sitting and a total of 14 papers must be completed.
2) University degree
Accounting is a very common course and you can do it locally or abroad. Scholarships are abound; many financial institutions provide financial aid, sometimes with bondage. The course duration is 3 years and it usually covers other non-accounting subjects like finance, economics and miscellaneous subjects. Graduates from local universities immediately get recognition from MIA, while graduates from foreign universities/professional certification are required to work 3 years before obtaining that recognition.
1) I have a degree already and I want to sit for ACCA; is it too late?
No it's not too late, a degree gives you exemption from 9 papers, so you can sit for the remaining 5 papers. However, bear in mind that a strong foundation is necessary as the papers are tough so if you have time and money, it would be good to enroll in foundation papers to prepare yourself.
2) I have both a degree and a cert, good for me?
Yes employers will refer to your results for the cert first, the degree is usually the back-up. This is how the industry works; if the cert is relevant to their business, then that's the first thing they'll check. However if you want to work in the commercial end, typically you don't need a cert to qualify.
Accounting is a noble profession; money is no laughing matter and we'll need accountants to keep our finances under check. Good luck to all and feel free to drop questions, I will try my best to get the experts to answer :)