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In the IFAC Knowledge Gateway article Redefining accounting for tomorrow, we proposed a new definition of accounting as “a technical, social and moral practice concerned with the sustainable utilisation of resources and proper accountability to stakeholders to enable the flourishing of organizations, people and nature”.

Professional accountants and non-accountants alike need to appreciate and understand the effects of accounting upon organizations, people and nature to help shape a better world.  Having received overwhelming acceptance of our definition from academics, we turn to its implications for accounting education. In doing so, we urge accounting educators to make accounting education more central to accounting development. 

Accounting educators play a key role in enabling aspiring professional accountants to appreciate their obligations. It is crucial to the accounting profession’s future that accounting plays a major role in answering the “big questions” in society and in solving its “wicked problems” (for example, climate crisis, pandemics, sustainability, human rights, poverty and inequality, oppression and warfare, hunger and food insecurity, water provision and management, global refugee movements, health care provision, habitat and biodiversity, government corruption and accountability, education availability and accessibility).  

Of importance to accounting educators’ strategy our proposed new definition of accounting may be applied using a framework of three key conceptual questions:

  • Technical practice: "How to do accounting?".
  • Social practice: "What does accounting do?".
  • Moral practice: "What should accounting do" or "What should accounting not do?"

Accounting must be studied and evaluated in the contexts in which it operates. Whether changing or change resistant, accounting has consequences for human behaviour, for shaping the organizational culture, and for conditioning the way we think and what we do.

A key means to understand accounting in its contexts is by means of case studies, either set within specific organizational and social contexts or depicting acceptably realistic scenarios, for discussion, debate and improved understanding.  Case studies, of course, are not new in accounting. However, focusing on identifying and evaluating the effects of accounting in the contexts in which it operates is necessary to understand and articulate the implications of accounting for organizational and social functioning and development. This is a necessary extension when accounting is redefined as technical, social and moral practice.

Case-based accounting education helps to break down the notion, held by many students, which is perhaps best expressed in their following, often-posed question: “What is the right answer?”. Sadly, the use of this question by today’s students seems to be approaching saturation point.

Future accountants are encouraged to offer society more than what a mentality of apparently “correct accounting” delivers. Accounting professionals of tomorrow, therefore, are actively encouraged to contribute to answering, "big questions" and to solving "wicked problems", working in conjunction with other disciplines, for greater prospects of advancing not only the public interest, but also the Planet’s interest.

In accounting education, rather than students being focussed on being provided ‘answers’, they should be conditioned from the first lecture in their “Accounting 101” course to argue positions that are developed and held based on the use of judgement, decision-making making acumen and an appreciation of accounting’s effects.  Under this orientation, accounting turns out to be an intellectually stimulating discipline that, while challenging, has considerable potential to be exciting in the interests of social good “to enable the flourishing of organizations, people and nature”!

Computer facilitated learning in accounting has provided rich opportunities, with considerable effectiveness in the use, immersion and appreciation of changing technologies in accounting. However, the downside is that students are often exposed to learning accounting as mere technical practice using refined software packages that are sold commercially, providing time-efficient opportunities for developing such competencies in students.

Traditional accounting textbooks do not appear to move on to any material extent in this technology-driven climate of the early 2020s. These texts appear to be somewhat grounded in the increasingly distant past, both failing to adequately embrace technological advances and an adequate appreciation of all major conceptions of accounting based on published research. 

A new, multi-faceted, comprehensive, and more inclusive definition of accounting, such as proposed above, is indeed overdue to inform teaching and learning and professional practice. Some further thoughts and ideas follow for reflection:

  1. What is vital in accounting education is the quality of teaching and learning provided and not just the quantity or extent of topics covered.
  2. It is essential that time is allocated to teaching and understanding the nature, roles, uses and impacts of accounting in its operational contexts, both in organizations and societies.  
  3. Accounting research helps to solve problems and create better futures and informs teaching.  It needs to be nurtured, defended and developed and not just for introspective journal ranking purposes, which feeds into global university rankings. 
  4. Challenging conventional wisdom in accounting, and in other academic disciplines, is essential in maintaining and developing the vitality and viability of a university education and in helping to shape a better world for humans and non-humans alike.  There is no Planet B!
  5. Educate students in the duties of accountants and the consequences of accounting. The accounting classroom must reflect on the world of today, using illustrations in the media and other sources available of accounting as technical, social and moral practice. Teaching resources must stimulate students’ ability to become life-long learners with a critical mind and conscience, thereby meeting their needs and those of society.

Finally, it is up to accounting educators to act, thereby teaching accounting for what is: a technical, social and moral practice. Educators can have a significant influence on their students.  The full potential of accounting, however, has yet to be reached; its impacts are important and far-reaching but rarely identified and evaluated in advance of the application of forms of accounting in specific organizational and social contexts.

In summary, accounting education needs to be evolved away from being regarded as a process for implementing regulatory compliance, where the emphasis is on accounting as a technical practice alone.  Building on accounting research undertaken in the sociological, interpretive, and critical tradition from the early-to-mid 1980s, educators of accounting can develop accounting education with the framework offered by our proposed new definition of accounting.  Educators are also urged to purposely tap into the mindsets of our students around contemporary issues facing the world as a form of partnership approach for incorporating and integrating contemporary issues into the curriculum.

There are indeed opportunities and challenges for all of us to position accounting of tomorrow as a combined technical, social and moral practice to help in shaping a better world; one which is increasingly concerned with the flourishing of organizations, people and nature.

Garry Carnegie

Emeritus Professor, Department of Accounting, RMIT University

Garry Carnegie is an Emeritus Professor of RMIT University having served as Head, School of Accounting and Professor of Accounting at RMIT from 2010 to 2017. Prior to joining academe in 1985, Professor Carnegie gained experience in the IT industry, professional accounting services and in financial services. Prior to joining RMIT, he held full-time professorial posts at Deakin University, Melbourne University Private/The University of Melbourne, and at the University of Ballarat (now Federation University Australia). He was the Editor/Joint Editor of Accounting History for a continuous period of 25 years and is an Associate Editor of Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal. He is Joint Editor of the EE Handbook of Accounting, Accountability and Governance.

Lee Parker

Lee Parker is Research Professor of Accounting, Glasgow University, Scotland. Globally published, Lee is joint founding editor of Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal and member of over 20 journal editorial boards. He has been President: Academy of Accounting Historians (USA), American Accounting Association Public Interest section, Vice-President (International) American Accounting Association, President CPA Australia (SA Division), Deputy Chair Australian Institute of Management (SA), member of the Australian Accounting Hall of Fame and the Australian Centre For Social and Environmental Accounting Research Hall of Fame.

Eva Tsahuridu, PhD

Business Ethicist, Board Director

Dr. Eva Tsahuridu is a business ethicist who has been researching, teaching and advising on business and professional ethics for over two decades.  Eva is currently a board director and advisor.  She is the section editor of Practice in Business Ethics of the Journal of Business Ethics, an executive editor of Philosophy of Management and the deputy chair of the Australasian Business Ethics Network. Eva writes for practitioner and academic publications and her research interests include personal and organisational ethical conduct, whistleblowing, ethical and professional standards and philosophy of management.