View from the House – Jim Cousins

The English ICA is currently embroiled in a debate about the future shape of its examination syllabus. This is a matter of some concern to parliament. Too little attention is paid to the nature of professional accountancy education itself.

We live in a world of global financial and professional services. There will rightly be pressures for international accountancy standards. The emergence of ‘Euroland’ will bring about a bewildering array of new difficulties and opportunities. These will affect savers, workers and small businesses.

Accountancy education must train professionals who will prevent ‘insider’ cartels emerging. Communities that develop mass markets in sophisticated advice and services will achieve economic advantage.

Every week newspapers carry stories highlighting the failures of accounting and auditing practices. Yet aspiring accountants are routinely inculcated into knowledge which has already failed. Professional exams rarely encourage any reflection on institutionalised ‘knowledge failures’; or question the role of the accountancy bodies in preventing such failures.

The development of forensic, challenging accountancy is essential if future problems are to be avoided. Does accountancy education stress enough the public interest and the power of scrutiny?

There are also major changes in the employment of accountants. Most accountants work in industry and commerce where the nature of their work is changing; many routine tasks are being performed by computer software. These trends are likely to continue to deskill accounting labour. Traditional accountancy qualifications are no longer a passport to the boardroom.

This environment must lead to the redesign of professional education.

An independent investigation of accountancy education would be helpful.

Some see education as a business and are more concerned with making money than meeting the challenges ahead.

Are the professional bodies too divided to respond? If they are, then this will be another issue that will surface when parliament gets down to discussing the future of accountancy.

Jim Cousins is Labour MP for Newcastle Central.

Related reading