Educating accountants: or is it too late?

Is accounting education to remain a game of trivial pursuit? In Australia on 17 June 2013 it was quite a shock to wake up to hear the Former Defence Force chief Admiral Chris Barrie on TV saying that if the world continues down its current course of activities there will be no humans alive in 2100. Even the United Nations estimates figures of between 6 and 16 billion depending on the scenario. Professor Frank Fenner an eminent Australian scientist predicted human extinction is possible within 100 years (2110), because of a lack of accounting and accountability for overpopulation, environmental destruction and climate change.

How great does human misery and despair have to be before the accounting and finance profession realise that their client businesses are the root cause of economic-environment-social sustainability problems and that they are therefore educating students for a dismal future, if not for them it will be for their children? Global financial crises, youth unemployment at spiralling rates, utilitarian attitudes to human and environmental problems, growth at any cost, short term profitability and bonuses, dubious standards. All the hallmarks of a blinkered profession destined for oblivion.

What can the accounting profession do to help – quickly? First, get future leaders to think outside the box. No population means no clients, no income. Future leaders must be not only be unblinkered to the economic implications of social and environmental problems, but taught to integrate them into economic strategy from the outset. This is imperative for educators.

Second, educate the next generation of graduates and professionals to be aware of the actual environmental and social issues that need addressing (and not just carbon, but even more critically, water and biodiversity) rather than the trivia of some irrelevant 58th clause of a defunct accounting standard which is compliance driven. Third, set up information systems that can help managers justify to the board or their bosses taking actions to stop environmental and social harms, while maintaining profitability. Convince managers rather than rely on regulations requiring defunct information disclosure through annual reporting or narrowly interpreted integrated reporting. It means education driving internal driving external: it can be done.

Fourth, make sure that graduates are not clones of current professional accountants. We have witnessed many at the top of the game who exhibit little inclination to face the world’s problems – only the minority do [and you know who you are!!] Fifth, engage with the universities to move away from encouraging academic accountants to research dry and largely irrelevant topics and to start to think of innovation and competitiveness as it will be in the future.

Sixth, scold the current Federal Labor government for its downgrading of university expenditure instead of increasing investment at a time when increasing awareness of ALL accounting and accountability matters will be essential to coping with future professional services and a healthy economy. Future voters will see you genuflecting to mining and bankers rather than to education and the future. We know where hope lies for survival of future generations.

Seventh, tackle management of business schools (Deans, Heads of Schools) trapped into the old model of seeing the world as teaching to produce a set of accounts, irrelevant in the current business climate when sustainability problems demand the complexity of many well-rounded graduates from many disciplines and areas. Campaign to broaden their perspective.

Time for the profession to think about the wider aspects of the world in which it lives and the contribution that can be made. A transdisciplinary revolution in which accountants will actually have a place in 2100. Who will put their hand up to enter this new world of accounting?

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