Educating responsible professionals

Through our programmes, we are looking to tackle some of the main challenges before the accountancy profession. Acting as catalysts for new thinking and fresh perspectives, we aim to inspire constructive dialogue and collaborative innovation about the role of audit and the accountancy profession in twenty-first century society.

Our inquiry began with the root of the financial crisis, asking how audit can innovate so that it best serves society. In-depth discussions, collaborative engagements and innovative events helped us develop a systemic view and interdisciplinary approach to the future of the profession. In addition to reimagining the purpose, scope and institutions of accountancy, we have also identified the need to rethink how education can help to develop critical, virtuous and committed professionals who serve the public interest.

While we will continue to work with teaching academics and training providers, we want to prompt a discussion on four topics in accounting education, building on our work with universities and the theory and practice of our Philosophy for Accountancy initiative:

  • Broadening technical knowledge and putting it in a broader social and professional context to enable accountants to connect technical knowledge with a higher purpose.
  • Promoting life-long and inquiry-based learning that is less about tools and procedures and more about developing professional identity and rounded and flourishing individuals.
  • Fostering the character and ethos of the chartered accountant, going beyond skills and knowledge, to build understanding, passion and commitment to ethical behaviour and moral responsibilities.
  • Building stronger interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary approaches to accounting academia and practice to reflect the needs of complex and interconnected challenges that require education beyond single-track specialisation and narrow expert technical knowledge.

Opportunities for education to raise the bar

Respected professionals are honoured for their knowledge and ethics. Their self-realisation and service to a higher purpose is what defines a morally admirable person and what inspires young people to idealistic sacrifice and devotion of their lives to a profession. Leading ICAEW members are people who are passionate about their profession and think about it as something that is interesting and worth devoting their life to. They are driven by a higher aspiration and motivation to serve the public interest. Without that, a profession could be seen simply as a group of people with a privileged position for selling their services in markets.

This brings the challenge and concern of whether the predominantly technical character of professional training today is suitable for those who will lead businesses, accounting firms and the profession tomorrow. The current pressure on learning technical expertise underestimates the need for critical, creative or moral perspectives, which universities, education providers and employers need to foster in the intellectual and character development of professionals.

Professional bodies like ICAEW have an opportunity and role to challenge this and promote understanding that accountancy education is not just about technical skills acquired over a limited time period. It is a life-long journey, where qualifications and degrees are just stepping stones. Looked at in isolation, qualifications and degrees just demonstrate that someone has passed exams.

Professional bodies should have the aspiration and obligation to raise the bar of fostering personal commitment to the social purpose of the profession. Engaging with intellectual rigour, forming professional judgements and respecting duties and virtues could spring from contextualising knowledge and understanding principles. Going above and beyond what is required and expected is what drives personal motivation and gains public appreciation.

As one of the global thought-leading professional bodies of the finance and accounting profession, ICAEW is ideally positioned to provide continuous support to people who are devoted to the profession. Such institutional support builds dynamic links between academia, business and practice, and develops platforms for continuous engagement for members. Opening discussion of the role of education in fostering responsible professionals is one of our activities in thinking about the future of the profession and advancing its role in 21st century society.

We need to actively address the adequacy of technical skills, degrees and professional qualifications in such fast-changing societies, and work to broaden the scope of professional education, both intellectually and morally, so as to foster resilient leadership capabilities in young professionals. Education should enable resilience and a critical outlook in professionals who can evaluate quickly changing economic and social contexts.

Rethinking accounting education

In the modern world education has focused heavily on testing for hard knowledge and skills, and less on developing character, moral reasoning and the ability to exercise independent critical judgement. There is a common agreement that such ‘instrumentalisation’ has led to the development of perverse incentives and contributed to financial scandals and an overall loss of trust in financial institutions and business. As professional scepticism and judgement are at the heart of accountancy, young professionals and students require a more holistic learning process that fosters independent critical thinking through intellectual challenge and contextualisation of technical knowledge.

We have learned from the wider AuditFutures programme and its engagements with universities in many countries that there is a need for more reflective values, attitudes and competencies in young professionals, and so we explore how specifically higher education could support a more comprehensive and proactive approach to professional education, so as to foster such competencies and embrace the role of accountants as custodians of moral good. We believe that education could be a disruptive force that enables a new type of proactive leadership, which can critically evaluate new business and social needs and generate innovative approaches to facilitate change.

A number of leading business schools are now looking to advance ethical leadership and critical thinking skills in their students, by integrating philosophy, history and social psychology as part of a more responsible and interdisciplinary finance education.

Broadening education could be a positive disruptive force to enable creative leadership within the profession.

Successful engagements and upcoming initiatives

Pilot at Manchester Business School

In 2014-2015, we engaged with Manchester Business School to test our theory in a year-long pilot programme, integrated as part of the course on ‘Auditing and Professional Accounting Practice’. Monthly seminars introduced the tools of philosophical inquiry and facilitated discussions to a group of 45 first-year undergraduate accounting students. Coupled with new methods of dialogic inquiry, the session topics worked to contextualise and broaden the knowledge that students had gained from other classes. We further integrated topics from sociology, psychology and philosophy in order to open up the scope of knowledge in accountancy. The aim was to provide the wider social context and purpose of the profession as a key to developing commitment and passion in students. Throughout the year, we witnessed how students’ reasoning skills progressed and how their interest and engagement significantly improved.

Further university initiatives

In the 2015-16 academic year, we are working with academics from a number of universities. We have developed initiatives to promote the profession, to challenge students’ thinking and to provide opportunities for engaging academia and practice:

  • Catalyst sessions. These are one-off sessions that take place once a year as part of the regular class time of university modules. Run as interactive workshops and featuring guest talks and multimedia presentations, the sessions inspire students and challenge their thinking. Building on the course content, the sessions are structured in three levels: inquiry and social context; complexity and systems thinking; and design thinking and innovation.
  • University assemblies. These half-day events bring together students and academics from accounting and other disciplines, as well as practitioners, businesses and civil society leaders from local communities to galvanise interest in the greater purpose of the accountancy profession. Sessions explore multidisciplinary issues and ideas within accounting, auditing and finance and connect them with wider social challenges
  • Philosophy for Accountancy. This comprehensive approach embraces a long-term vision for supporting the core of professional education through integrated seminars in accounting courses and training modules. These sessions develop independent critical thinking and higher moral reasoning that help students deal with complex problems while embedding technical knowledge and professional skills within a wider social frame. We aim to boost the overall rigour of professional accountancy education so that it becomes something to aspire to.
CPD workshops and support for academics

As part of our programme, we are running a series of workshops for teaching academics. These full-day sessions bring together leading educators from a number of universities for an interactive discussion on the future of accounting education and for bespoke practical workshops on inquiry-based learning. As foundation building, they offer an overview of successful programmes and details of current engagements. We share insights and practical ideas from the growing field of the learning sciences and introduce opportunities for new pedagogical approaches, such as philosophical inquiry and design-thinking. The events provide open space for facilitated discussion and planning of university engagements and in-depth review of lesson plans.

We are developing materials and online resources to provide continuing support for academics. A follow up academic paper on the theory and methodology outlined in Philosophy for Accountancy will be published towards the end of the next academic year. We are now developing a practice guide and online toolkit which will be a resource for educators and teaching practitioners.

Learning to be a better professional

Working with individual accounting firms, we are now developing initiatives to think about what fires up people and to foster mindsets and attitudes for responsibility and curiosity. We hope to challenge people to reflect on the things they need to do at a personal level, to make diligent judgments and learn to stand behind these judgements as the first steps in internalising and taking responsibility. Thinking about how people become professionals and what impacts their professional identity in the process of education, we go beyond describing the process of how one learns to be a professional. Instead we propose an educational argument for teaching and learning – how education could foster the conditions in which one can actively learn to be a better professional and develop practical wisdom.