Accounting academy: a bridge or just a gateway?

What is the role of education? Is it to inspire generations to learn and open their minds to unlimited opportunities? Is to help people become better members of our society? Or is it just a means for people to make more money in their careers?

A simple Internet search should reveal about two million attempts to answer this question,: from idealistic and utopian to reasonable and pragmatic. Interestingly, most responses are not part of philosophical appreciations of education in society but quite often come from heated debates on the changes needed in education. While it seems there is a consensus on the need for some change, the divergence in opinions stems from the question of how we might achieve this.

Predominantly, we tend to take a typical left-brain approach on how to ‘fix’ education. We search for pathways and incremental innovations. We rarely step back and re-examine the foundations of what we do. Consider the thought-provoking argument of Sir Ken Robinson who has been advocating a radical redesign of education. He says ”the current educational system was conceived, designed and structured in the economic circumstances of the industrial revolution.” In his famous RSA Animate, he describes the current model of education as a factory, where we focus on production line of batches of students..

Is the “factory-based” model of education best suited for auditing and accounting? Is our accounting academy a bridge for new generations to take towards a better society? Or is it simply a gateway to the profession?

This week is the perfect time to start asking these questions. In a few days’ time, the American Accounting Association (AAA) will be dedicating its 2013 annual meeting to ‘brilliantly disguised opportunities’ in higher education, academic research and teaching. Next week, hundreds of academics, practitioners and organisations will discuss how we can turn the challenges of the future into opportunities.

While it’s great that these questions are being addressed at the AAA, we think one very important stakeholder is missing: the students. They will have their own meeting the following weekend, during the Beta Alpha Psi annual conference. Just one mile south of the AAA’s meeting and just one week later. Wouldn’t it be nice if the two conferences got together?

We started having discussions with students a few months ago, asking them about the role and purpose of the accounting academy in the future of the profession, and why they think we need education. We’ve hosted five interactive workshops as part of our AuditFutures University programme and have had conversations with over a hundred students.

What we have found really striking is to hear graduating accountancy students, who are firm in their decision to pursue a career in accounting and auditing, talking about “gaps” and “disconnect” with their academic programs.

So, what are the themes that are close to the hearts and minds of students? I had discussions with over a hundred students from from Baltimore University, Ohio State, Grand Valley State, Midwestern State, Iowa State, University of Manchester and University of North Texas and this blog will outline their greatest concerns.

Not seeing the big picture: trees without a forest

The main ingredient that students view as missing in their university education is the reason for “why we do the things we do” in accounting. A common perception is that individual courses don’t provide a comprehensive picture of the wider role of the profession in society: “we are given assignments and tasks and work with them but we often don’t see why they are relevant. If we want to talk about integrity, ethics or purpose, we need to bring the question of WHY.” This is supported by many students who are otherwise happy with their academic programmes and are satisfied with the quality of teaching but feel the need for an overarching goal besides obtaining a degree and securing a job: “I took a lot of classes that I liked and did very well in most of them but I don’t think they gave me a good big picture for my future job.”

Students feel that their academic programmes prepare them better for work in the public sector. They see the biggest disconnect regarding corporate accounting. Students’ perceptions are that education prepares them well for careers in the public sector but they feel they have little understanding of business and are often welcomed to their new jobs with “Forget what you studied at school – this is how things happen here in the real world.”

Inspiring a generation

The first classes students take in accounting have to be inspiring and motivating to make students dream about their future and work towards it. Accounting education nowadays has a lot more competition from other subjects and students are not shy about saying that: “If I hadn’t made up my mind before I took the introductory classes, I would probably not have chosen this major. This is because of how certain professors teach the course. And I don’t think that you can actually learn to like accounting from the courses we have.”

The views about the first level courses are mixed but they share one common concern: we fail to inspire the next generation to develop a passion for the profession. For some students it is a cold start: “All introductory accounting courses tend to be very dry. Most professors just give you information, ask you questions and grade you on them. But you don’t get taught real accounting until your upper level courses.” For others, the high energy spark of the first date with accounting dwindles slowly: “I was extremely motivated by my Principles 101 course but was disheartened by the long and boring technical learning in the upper courses.”

It is very difficult for students to grasp that there really are choices available within the profession that match with their idealistic views of a better future for accountancy. Students start their courses with big questions about why we need audit, or what the role of accounting is in society. The challenge is to keep this level of excitement through a lot of technical learning and practical projects.

Teaching accountants to fish

The next generation of professionals does not want to be spoon-fed at school. They are hungry for critical reasoning and creative thinking. “Principles and standards change all the time. It is important for us to learn how to think critically.” From our own work, we have seen how important it is to excite students to think and debate issues and stay optimistic.

A key challenge is to free students from their compliant mindset. We need to challenge them to get out this mindset and ask them for their opinions and to question what they are being taught. Often students sit in a classroom with their instructor and think that the teacher knows best. They don’t challenge or question enough. We need to give students permission to ask questions and develop exercises where students discuss a topic without a clear right or wrong answer. “We need more simulations that show and teach us how to think and act in real life situations. This will allow us to take the most out of the academic program.“ This would be very helpful for classes like ethics which mostly could be based on case studies and examples. This would teach students how to think in some difficult situations and how to take active positions.

Another area that students think needs more emphasis is on developing skills and competencies for face to face interactions. They are aware that in a world of mobile and online communications, they might not be prepared for these key skills. ”In our company visits, that was the one thing that was reinforced in almost all meetings. How do we build better client relationships and feel less intimidated?”

Keeping it real

Adding more “real world applications” and “practical examples” is considered essential for students. Many of them think that what they are being taught at school is just abstract principles and they have to face a completely different story when they enter the firms. “When I interned, there were a lot more complications that I didn’t realise before. They allowed me to learn more about my job than from my studies.”

Young people today have to cope with a very tough job market and to constantly search for practical experience outside the classroom. They need to develop a critical appreciation of the necessity for both theoretical and practical knowledge.“During my work experience I gained a lot more technical knowledge than I did in school. Now when I reflect, what companies are doing makes a lot more sense than if I was simply reading about it from a textbook or listening to it in a class.” As more students enjoy work experience, they become aware of the differences between academia and practice. “There is a huge difference of how we studied the practical examples at school and how we actually do things at work. Universities need to find a way of bridging this gap.”

Quite a few of the students told us how group projects were extremely helpful in preparing them for practical experience. In most firms, work is done in teams and learning how to work with different people should continue to be emphasized in schools.

Meeting the classroom’s significant other: the Internship

All students agree that an internship is one of the most important parts of their education before entering the profession. They hope it ensures a smooth transition from the school to the firm and provides coveted hands-on experience. One very important feature of the “ideal” internship is the good balance between structure (“someone holding our hand”) and freeform (“figuring it out for ourselves”). “I was very frustrated at the beginning of my internship as for the first three weeks I had no supervision and I had no idea what I was supposed to do or how I fitted into the bigger picture of the firm, but towards the end I figured it out and felt grateful for the opportunity, even though it took me longer and happened almost at the end.”

Most internships are very competitive and this poses two significant challenges. First, students are often faced with situations where 30-40 people are competing for five internship positions. Most students perceive only a small number of firms as “prestigious” and they often dismiss smaller or more geographically distant firms from their horizons, as not worthwhile. The truth is that, having an internship, even if it is not in audit or in a “prestigious” firm, is extremely valuable for a later career in auditing.

The second issue with extremely competitive internships is that firms battle to get the best students and try to get them in as early as possible. Therefore, students sometimes get internships before they are ready. Some stories from work placements early in the academic programme, suggest students are too young or too unprepared and that it will be better for students and firms to meet later.

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Although I don’t necessarily think that these views should define the debate, it is important to realise their validity and implications for accounting education. It is always helpful to discuss students’ aspirations for the profession and see whether it is ready to welcome and listen to them. As one student from Ohio State said “the accounting profession requires constant and continuous learning. It is not a profession that you just learn and hop on.”

This will be the topic for the next blog in this series.

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