Universities are adapting, so must accountancy education

Universities are adapting, so must accountancy education

For nearly four centuries, higher education has pushed students to define their role in society.  In a society upended by pandemic, however, the script has been flipped. As many students defer, transfer or simply opt out, it’s the value of education that must be defined for a new era

Universities are adapting, so must accountancy education

While no doubt a challenging exercise, rethinking what education looks like – from how classes are held, to how degrees are conferred, to which skills should be sharpened in school and which are best learned on the job – has proven to be an exciting turning point for the future of many fields, accounting included.

The International Federation of Accountants (IFAC), the global voice for the accounting profession representing more than three million accountants worldwide, recently convened department chairs, professors and students from around the world – Singapore, Australia, Lebanon, Mexico, Japan, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Canada, France, the US and more – to discuss what will secure and define the future of the accountancy profession and its pipeline of practitioners. From those conversations, two priorities emerged: higher education has to evolve, and accounting curriculums must adapt to keep pace with a world in flux. These are complex and long-term challenges, but as an industry, we have to confront them, starting now. Here’s why.

As accountants’ value in society surges, higher education programs must be bolstered

During the pandemic, accountants have been essential partners to business leaders navigating unprecedented uncertainty. That momentum for the profession needs to be applied to how we’re training the next generation as well. There’s a strong consensus among both educators and students that in-person learning will always be best. That said, everyone sees opportunities hidden among the pandemic’s unique constraints.

For our industry, shifting accounting’s perception among business majors is a critical starting point. Before the pandemic, well-positioned fields like supply chain management and business analytics were already enticing students away from accounting careers. “In reality, accounting is the backbone of every business. It prepares you in a way other specialties couldn’t,” said a student from Mexico. Programs should consider more modern models to show how agile and in-demand the profession is. Micro-credentialing, for instance, is one route that could advance the profession in a more on-demand format. We should also think about the expansive possibilities that digital education offers. As one student from Canada put it: “This is a wonderful chance for more global engagement.” Remote classes mean faculty and practitioners from all over the world can join as guests. Meanwhile, simulators and other technological tools can seamlessly integrate to allow for more interaction with students.

There’s no doubt, face to face learning is very valuable, but we can have the best of both worlds. Embracing hybridised learning will allow our profession to put collaboration and digital skills at the forefront of our future. As many educators we spoke with agreed, professions that invest now are going to come out of the pandemic with a competitive advantage.

To compete for talent, future-proofed skills and industry collaboration are essential

Accountancy’s long-term advantage will come from proving how integrated, digital and broadly applicable our skills are. As one professor said, “The ability to anticipate, respond to and adapt to changes is more important than ever.” Our educational programs must highlight the key characteristics of future-ready accountants, and never are those capabilities clearer than in the wake of crisis.

For instance, working well within teams of other specialties has proven critical. That won’t change. Likewise, the significance of change management skills and agility, which have been accountants’ secret weapon as advisors during the pandemic, cannot be overstated. As students described what role they envision for themselves in this changed world, descriptors including “technology integrator,” “dynamic decision maker,” “sustainability advocate,” and even “storyteller” emerged. Accountants have always been key partners at any point in the lifetime of an organisation, but this is a distinct moment to creatively and strategically redefine our role.

Ultimately, our profession has a strong foundation that will withstand global transformation in any form. That doesn’t mean that we can’t continue to make ourselves even more valuable. Now is the time to ensure we’re preparing our future workforce for success in any environment, and that means teaching them to be trusted professionals with strong soft skills who can adapt and perform in a highly digitalised economy.

Alta Prinsloo is executive director at the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC)

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