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June 20, 2011 2:17 am

Accountancy: Students seek a wider range of skills

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The vision of an army of all-powerful female environmentally focused bean-counters seems unlikely to materialise, but nonetheless a trend in this direction seems to be emerging in accountancy training.

Where training once focused on accounting techniques and professional exams for classes that were full of men, it now accommodates a wider range of interests.

At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the US, for example, training forms part of a programme called Project Discovery that aims to produce accountants with broad skills and knowledge of the business world.

“Project Discovery evolves very rapidly, in response to everything else evolving rapidly,” explains Clifton Brown, professor of accountancy at the school.

Employers, both public and private, now want chartered accountants to be able to understand, monitor and report what risks reside in vast global corporations.

They expect them to be able to assume the role of finance specialist, risk manager, auditor and adviser.

For this, you need leadership, research and communication skills, not just technical knowledge.

In fact, employers now think technical expertise is something they are capable of delivering themselves, says Prof Brown.

The new advisory roles for accountants have fuelled the debate on conflict of interest, because the fees paid by a client for such services may be more important to the accounting firm than those paid for the actual audit, for example.

“Audit consultancy work is too friendly because of the customer-supplier relationship,” says Paul Merrison, head of professional courses in south-east Asia for London School of Business and Finance.

However, he is not sure what the solution is and notes that this is the way the profession is evolving nonetheless.

Indeed, LSBF, among other schools, has now designed an MBA programme that fits with an accountancy qualification in order to meet popular demand.

Adrian Pulham, director of education and membership at the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accounting agrees that people, students included, are now keen for training to be as relevant as possible to the global and corporate workplaces of today.

Students at the Institute of Financial Accountants (IFA) in London have a growing range of modules to choose from, including skills for small to medium-size enterprises.

“Companies have wised up a bit about not just needing an accountant that’s technically brilliant,” says Heather Venis, director of education at the IFA.

Since the financial crisis, it makes sense to have a portfolio of skills. “Students are now taking the wider view rather than choosing a single path such as technical accounting, that is too narrow,” she says.

This wider view includes environmental accounting, which is another trend that has emerged from a growing focus on corporate social responsibility.

Integrated Reporting, explains Mr Merrison, has been an important driver of this.

Backed by the Prince of Wales’ Accounting for Sustainability project, Integrated Reporting aims to demonstrate the relationship between a company’s “strategy, governance and financial performance and the social, environmental and economic context within which it operates”.

A discussion paper is due to be published this month by the International Integrated Reporting Committee, established in 2009 to oversee the development of this type of reporting.

“This will dominate the next four to five years” says Mr Merrison. “The whole system needs to change to fit this.”

The range of study options has also made accountancy careers far more flexible.

Though professional qualifications, particularly those of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants, are still essential, employers, including the Big Four, are being more open-minded about whom they recruit. This has led to a growing number of women choosing the profession.

“Where in the past, women could have been shut out by employers, now they have more options,” says Ms Venis at the IFA.

Prof Brown points out that his classes are now dominated by women. “When I graduated in 1974, there was not a single woman in the class,” he says. “Today, women in my classes are well in the majority.”

The same goes for other schools, including CIPFA and LSBF. And women are excelling in the field. Mr Pulham at CIPFA notes that last year, six out of seven academic prizes were awarded to female students.

However progress further up the career ladder continues to be restricted.

“At the bottom end, it’s going through the roof, but, at the higher end, there’s still slow progress,” says Mr Merrison.

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