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People and Planet in the Accounts: renewed purpose in accounting education

30 November 2020: Richard Cartwright, Principal Teaching Fellow at the University of Southampton, explains why the colossal challenges facing businesses today give the professional and academic study of accounting renewed purpose.

I describe myself as an accidental accountant having fallen into the profession after graduating from a BSc Economics Degree in 2006. I’ll be candid, I even actively avoided the optional modules in accounting during my degree as I thought they would be boring!

Fast-forward 14 years and things couldn’t be more different, I’m a complete convert! Having qualified at KPMG, I am now a university lecturer specialising in financial accounting and audit and a very active member of the ICAEW.

The employment prospects, average earnings and wider opportunities associated with studying accounting and finance are competitive. However, for a long time, I wrestled how to make the subject and in particular the study of the subject at University, a compelling option for students who at 18 have more choice than ever before.

The definitions of accounting are typically very dry and, in my opinion, often don’t provide a rich illustration of the purpose of accounting. Accountants are at the forefront in helping prepare for and respond to what I believe are four great challenges facing businesses today:

  • Responding to COVID-19
  • Managing the impact of Brexit
  • Embracing the opportunities and challenges associated with the 4th industrial revolution
  • Helping to achieve the UN Global Goals for Sustainable Development.

Business in recent years has received a bad press with respect to its impact on the environment. However, I’m a fervent believer in the capacity of business (as an organising principle) to solve problems and I include achieving the UN Global Goals for Sustainable Development in this.

This is why I’m so pleased to see the ICAEW embrace these challenges as a part of their strategy and that so much material on the subjects to members and the general public on these issues.

I believe those challenges also give the professional and academic study of accounting renewed purpose. It has also helped in communicating the importance and relevance of accounting to accounting and non-accounting students alike. I can testify to this personally through my integration of these topics into our introductory Financial Accounting module at Southampton Business School.

For as long as I can remember Commercial Awareness has been a key employability skill for graduates. Soon I believe this will be extended to include an awareness of sustainability and the impact of a business’s activity on the environment.

It is, therefore, important that professional and academic qualification providers ‘walk the walk’ as well as ‘talk the talk’, fully embedding these hugely important topics into what is already a very busy curriculum.

Academia probably has an easier time of finding space or opportunity to discuss these issues within their courses and by nature of their institutions have access to a wide range of expertise beyond their own School and Faculty. However, though they might have advantages in terms of freedom and theoretical expertise, they potentially are disadvantaged in terms of practical commercial experience.

Conversely, where professional qualification providers may be more constrained in terms of curriculum (owing to its heavy regulation) and potentially in terms of in-house expertise, they typically have a greater connection with the profession and industry and therefore typically produce more commercially relevant case studies for students to engage with.

This is an important moment for academics, professional bodies and businesses to work together to develop a compelling range of resources, case studies and live briefs under a Creative Commons license to inspire, inform and (yes) assess students so that sustainability becomes a core component of accounting curricula.

Prince Charles challenged accountants to ‘save the world’. To do this we need those within the profession and especially those entering it to be aware, educated and empowered to help business to be an agent for good and help change the world for the better.

The time act is now, history has its eyes on us.

Article series: People and Planet in the Accounts

Convergence of non-financial frameworks and standards is gaining momentum and we are beginning to see how nature and society might be included in the financial statements. But can these frameworks tolerate such change? In these articles we explore this from the perspectives of different actors in the debate.

See the series