Fresh. Brilliant. Creative, Different. Challenging. Invigorating…. One after another, some sixty students, sitting in a circle, share their reflections on a workshop in just one word. In the past four hours, they have been discussing visions for the future of their profession and have built their own innovative scenarios. The energy and excitement on their faces after a long afternoon shows how timely this conversation has been and how enthused the next generation is.
A glimpse around the room reveals the diversity of the participants. There is a vibrant mix of bachelor’s, master’s and PhD students of accounting, economics, business and management from Manchester University and Manchester Metropolitan University. They are sitting among a dozen audit professionals who look even more excited than the students.
“We want to debate real issues with professionals.” This was the clear message from a small group of students who had come to our December’12 assembly. They had actively participated in the discussions and working groups and wanted to continue the conversation further and to invite their fellow students to take part. Their enthusiasm and ideas inspired us to develop the AuditFutures University programme.
AuditFutures University 101
On 29 April, we hosted our first workshop at the Manchester Business School with over 60 students and 15 professionals. Our goal was to engage and inspire students to think beyond the concepts of jobs and careers and to empower them to see their role in shaping the future of their profession. The event was an opportunity for the profession to listen and learn from the next generation of auditors.
We designed the event as open, informal and highly participatory. Instead of sitting as if in a lecture, students had engaging discussions in small groups. There were no speakers, no powerpoints, no condescending voices. The first session of the workshop broadened the debate to discuss the meaning of professions nowadays and what qualities and competencies are needed. The second part of the workshop focused on specific scenarios around topical issues of audit.
What does it mean to be a professional?
Would you call someone a professional shopkeeper? Or a professional plumber? When do we call someone a professional? If we expect our doctors and teachers to work for more than just financial gain, should we expect the same from our auditors? ICAEW’s Richard Spencer has provoked this debate, asking whether we even need professions.
The students identified several themes, amongst which ethics and independence were key. Auditors have to be ethical, independent and work in the interest of the public. In addition, we also need good regulation. “Trust me I’m a doctor” is not sufficient any more, especially for a generation that has more information and good healthy scepticism. Young people will not accept “it’s too complicated, just trust me.”
Another interesting point raised was that our idea of what constitutes a profession is defined by how others judge it. What is the expectation gap? Is it about the profession not being happy about how others judge it? Students looked at whether the profession has done enough to promote the value it adds to society. We have had a lot of negative criticism about what we do and often weeks of many people’s diligent work remains unacknowledged. We need to promote the benefits of our work but students are certain that glossy adverts won’t do the trick.
This leads to an Interesting conversation on the depiction of professions in movies: surgeons, for example, are handsome, have rich social lives and have time for sex. But in real life they are not always like that. Why are accountants and auditors in movies always geeky, with glasses, not fun people? Nobody knows what auditors are doing because there are no movies about audit. One student suggested that ICAEW needs to have a TV series that depicts auditors as fun and sexy to change the public’s perception of them.
One group looked at some of the biggest changes in the profession over the past few decades. We have moved from institutes being at the centre of what we do, to firms taking precedence. The firms have somehow become more important. If you meet a lawyer at a party and ask them what they do, they will say “I am a lawyer”. If you ask an auditor – you will get “I work for firm X.”
Most of the groups shared the view that you start to trust a profession because its members have relevant qualifications. But at the same time, what do we know about these qualifications? How can we know what professionals have studied or what they have developed?
Participants in the discussion emphasized that there are two levels for these questions. The first dealt with the skills and competencies we should be teaching people going into the profession. The second and more interesting level was about what the profession can do to generate and develop these skills further. For example, after you qualify, should you be learning something more? If you are a partner, should you be studying geography, psychology or something else?
The most interesting part of the workshop was the innovation scenarios session. We had prepared about a dozen questions and topics that would allow students to debate relevant issues and develop innovation ideas. Participants formed working groups and dived into creative discussion on questions like:
- How would you design the accounting firm of the future?
- If you had a crystal ball, what would the recruitment for the profession be like in the future?
- How can we rebuild the public image of audit and how can we make it more people-friendly?
- Do we need more or less regulation to increase trust in auditors?
- What is the social value of audit?
For the complete list of scenarios and summary of the working groups, please download our Panorama newsletter.
One of the main concerns for students was the lack of visibility of their profession and the fact that people are not that involved in audit so cannot understand its value. “Don’t just wait for people to come to you” commented one participant, emphasizing that we should be proactive by going out and engaging with people, making them interested in what we do. And don’t be afraid to look for new and different people.
In promoting the profession, the common theme was that it is not about a quick advert or a PR campaign (which might cost a lot and still has nil effect). It is important to demonstrate the value of audit but talk about the outcomes and outputs – we need to focus on what impact auditors achieve rather than the inputs – what auditors really do.
Students also shared a common frustration about public perceptions. “When we talk to people and tell them we are interested in auditing or accounting, the usual response is “Oh, you must be good at maths.” We need a fresh makeover of the public image of accountants that conveys their qualities, skills and knowledge.
Diversity is fundamental for young people. If firms are recruiting more people from outside accounting studies we should be able to promote the profession and attract a wider application base. We need to break out – we are boxing ourselves in. As one of the students mentioned, firms are all too “samey”. We also need more women in the firms and until we address the fundamental challenges for women in the workforce, we will not bring accounting firms closer to a changing society.
From many firms’ perspectives, the quality of applicants is not the biggest issue. Often they get scores of applicants for only one vacancy. The bigger question is what the firms will do with these bright, new recruits. This is a fundamental point when thinking about the value the profession brings to society – what will happen in the next 10 or 20 years with these young people who have joined the profession?
One interesting theme that some students touched on was audit’s relationship with other services. They think that audit could have an element of an advisory role, advocacy and governance.While people from the practice have said that this cannot be done due to regulation, perhaps it is worth reopening this issue, which was first debated decades ago.
The number one priority for most students is the opportunity to develop skills on what is needed in their future profession. From practical sessions on training and qualifications, to mentoring and volunteering – students are looking for links between academic classes and work placements. For example, there are a lot of grassroot organisations, charities and community organisations that could use the accounting knowledge of audit students. They need not be big accounts but they could be mutually beneficial experiences and students can gain experience from the start to the finish of their education.
The final message is about optimism. The next generation of auditors do not want to take the passenger seat. They want to play an active role in shaping the future of their profession. They see that a transformation is long overdue and they are ready to step up to the plate. It is now up to the profession to decide whether to listen to them.
We should remember the lessons from other industries. What completely transformed the banking industry was not regulation or innovation from within the ranks of the banks but gatecrashers. What shook up the banking industry were the supermarkets in the western world and the cell phone banking and payment systems in the developing world.
Who’s going to be the gatecrasher at the audit party? They will definitely come from the ranks of generation Y. The question is whether they will be auditors.