education, leadership

What is missing in accounting education

Business schools and accounting departments have one of the most unenviable jobs in our business world. It is difficult enough for those of us in the workplace to keep up with all the changes in the business world; but those challenges are magnified at the higher education level. Professors and administrators are not only trying to address ever-increasing complexity, they are also dealing with macro issues like the supply of qualified high school graduates and budget pressures.

The Pathways Commission

In July 2012, the Pathways Commission[1] issued a report titled, “Charting a National Strategy for the Next Generation of Accountants.” The Pathways Commission was reacting to the challenges noted above, along with issues around attracting qualified students to the accounting profession, linking accounting education to needed competencies in professional positions, and ensuring that graduates can add value to the profession.

To bring the discussion to a more “grass roots” level, I spoke with three local professionals who deal with the complexities of preparing students for the workforce and managing them once they arrive at work.

What are the ISSUES?

My expert panel identified the following issues as the biggest gaps in accounting education today; these are the areas where students ARE NOT being prepared for accounting:

  • Computer skills – productivity software skills and understanding how accounting systems facilitate processes and enhance controls;
  • Professional behaviors and team skills;
  • Analytical thinking and problem solving.

I guess if you want to see “themes” in these issues, one might be “the basics” – which is interesting since most educators are probably thinking they need to make their curriculum more advanced to address complex business issues.

What are the SOLUTIONS?

So how can we address these issues? My advisors helped me come up with some practical solutions:

  • Universities and businesses should be HEAVILY ENGAGED in mutually beneficial activities;
  • Teach students foundational computer skills and relate these skills to common business processes;
  • Give students realistic practice with real-world problems (use current events, case studies, etc.).

Related to computer skills, it is clear that technology is always evolving, so there is risk in teaching computer skills in universities. But it also appears that some things are at least more stable than others, primarily productivity software (Excel, Word, PowerPoint seem to be tools that we will leverage for the long-term), and data skills (database structure, queries, etc.). Those may be good places to start.

The need for practical real-world experience shouldn’t surprise educators; places like Harvard Business School pioneered the idea of case study teaching years ago. So what’s the disconnect? I think we have to link this issue with the first recommendation…

The business community must be an integral element if a university is going to excel at accounting and finance education. Students learn the most when doing, and they learn even more when they are solving real-life problems. So internships and other exposure to real business are critical (as a side benefit, they will most certainly use productivity software during an internship). But businesses can do more throughout the student lifecycle:

  • Helping professors develop case studies based on their own experience, or even using their own actual problems and data;
  • Becoming “adjunct faculty” as guest speakers and mentors for students, helping them understand professional behaviors such as the importance of teamwork, strong interpersonal communication skills, and developing a professional “brand”;
  • Giving access to the business so students can see real-life software applications used in real businesses;
  • Providing financial support for the university and students, through scholarships or other programs.

The Pathways Commission acknowledged this key linkage also; it’s first of seven recommendations was: “Build a learned profession for the future by purposeful integration of accounting research, education, and practice for students, accounting practitioners, and educators.”

Ultimately, it will be the partnership between universities and the business community that help us advance accounting education and start to bridge the gap between the needs of business and the current flow of qualified finance and accounting graduates.

[1] The Pathways Commission is a volunteer commission sponsored by the American Accounting Association and the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. It was formed to understand issues around accounting education and provide recommendations for improving accounting education. For more information, visit www.pathwayscommission.org.

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