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What should we be doing about ethics education?

Author: Rob Jones

Published: 11 Sep 2019

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We seem to be in a time where hardly a week goes past without a story in the business press where there are question marks about a company’s accounts.

It might be a re-statement of profits (usually downwards), an insolvency or a fraud. In most cases, journalists question the role of the auditors, often expressing the opinion that the audit process was insufficiently rigorous, or the auditors were conflicted by competing interests.

Of course, ICAEW members can point to a well-developed code of professional behaviour which should ensure that auditors adopt due professional scepticism to ensure that their audits are rigorous enough and a detailed code of ethics explaining conflicts of interest and how they should be managed. However, despite this, the stories keep coming, suggesting a gradual erosion of trust and confidence in the profession.

So, where does that leave us as educators? What are our responsibilities as we educate the next generation of chartered accountants?

It’s easy to criticise and adopt a tone of moral superiority. After all we work in higher education, unsullied by the potentially “grubby” compromises inherent in practice work and corporate accounting.  Although I think some of us look at the changing world of higher education and feel some unease at the direction of travel.

One of my lasting memories of a decade or so in practice and business was the culture that it’s not enough just to point out a problem, one also has to be willing to contribute something to help improve things. So, here’s a few ideas from me and hopefully it might trigger some comments from members of the community that read this.


Ethics matter and they matter on many levels. It’s about how we are and who we want to be. In my experience it also matters to students. While current students may not be as politicised in the traditional sense of aligning with a political party; social and environmental issues figure prominently in their thinking. Having used the ICAEW films “False Assurance” and “Without Question” to explore some of the issues in class, I’ve found that they can help stimulate some engaging and interesting discussions.


In a competitive market for student intake isn’t this a chance for accounting educators to show some innovation and distinctiveness in what we do? To differentiate ourselves from other business-related subjects and maybe take a lead? We shouldn’t be shy about finding space in the curriculum for ethics. I feel sure we are pushing at an open door with the ICAEW and professional firms. So why not substitute a more technical module with one on ethics (at least as an option)? Helping our students graduate with a greater awareness of ethics is surely a sound educational aim?  AND one that could help our students in securing a graduate job – as hopefully it would be something that they would be able to talk about at interview.


Ethics is not a straightforward area. There are multiple shades of grey and therefore it’s an excellent opportunity for our students to develop their critical reasoning and problem-solving skills, as they work their way through the intricacies of an ethical dilemma. Surely that’s something that is both worthwhile and fun to teach?

Rob Jones

The views expressed are the author’s and not ICAEW’s.

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