It all starts with education: IFAC’s approach to boosting global accounting training

Jemelyn Yadao
Xyza Cruz Bacani

Helen Partridge, IFAC Chief Financial Officer and Director, Accountancy Education, and Bruce Vivian, Head of Accountancy Education, talk to Jemelyn Yadao about ensuring that aspiring accountants are ready to face a changing world, and how education can support the profession’s attractiveness

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Jemelyn Yadao
Xyza Cruz Bacani


Accounting education is being tested like never before. With the changes in the profession, from emerging areas of work such as sustainability reporting and assurance, to the disruption of new technologies, a major challenge for education in the profession is staying relevant.

The solution lies in bringing the academic community closer to those delivering accounting services, according to Bruce Vivian, Head of Accountancy Education, the platform for advancing accountancy education under the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC). “There is certainly a risk that curricula don’t keep pace with change. As the profession, we need to work together with the academic community to support them in maintaining their curricula, utilizing up-to-date case studies, and providing a positive and relevant introduction to the profession we all love.

In response to the growing need for sustainability-focused skills, Vivian believes there is an opportunity for the accountancy faculty to collaborate with faculty from other disciplines, such as the sciences and the arts. “This can result in programmes that make aspiring professional accountants conversant in different sustainability matters, and enhance their critical thinking and creative skills.”

Helen Partridge and Bruce Vivian

He adds that the “one-size-fits-all” approach that the profession sometimes takes in the pre-qualification phase, placing more emphasis on how hard and long a student needs to study, also needs to change. “At times, this has meant we have failed aspiring professional accountants who may have had the professional competence we expected but were unable to complete our programmes or pass our examinations for reasons unrelated to competence,” Vivian says.

“We don’t only want those who are good at exams, we want competent professional accountants who have diverse backgrounds and perspectives to serve the public interest. This means recognizing that a competent professional accountant may have started their studies in a different field before transitioning to accountancy. Or they may have preferred an apprenticeship route that allowed them to develop their competence on-the-job.”

As the expectations on accountants are getting higher, Helen Partridge, IFAC’s Chief Financial Officer and Director, Accountancy Education, is mindful about the risk of curriculum overload. “As accountants are asked, in the public interest, to take on additional considerations such as sustainability or the use of artificial intelligence by us or our clients, the global accountancy profession needs to ensure that programmes to qualify don’t grow longer so that the length of time to qualify becomes a barrier for future accountants,” she says.

“As accountants are asked, in the public interest, to take on additional considerations... the global accountancy profession needs to ensure that programmes to qualify don’t grow longer.”

The good news is that most of IFAC’s member organizations have been seen embracing the challenge of keeping education relevant for their members, developing and delivering continuing professional development programmes that reflect real-world complexity. “We are seeing courses, guidance and more being developed not only to support their own organizations but then to serve as inspiration or possible resources for other member organizations. It is IFAC’s privilege to facilitate and provide a forum for this knowledge sharing,” says Partridge.

Vivian points out, however, that while larger firms tend to be at the forefront of up-to-date education programmes, adapting to change can be much harder for smaller professional accountancy organizations and small- and medium-sized practices (SMPs). “We work to support all our member organizations and the SMP community with access to resources that can help them and their members or staff adapt to change. This includes developing thought leadership and guidance materials, video content such as our EdExchange video series, and events like our annual EdExchange Summit,” he says.

An evolving platform

In 2019, Accountancy Education was launched as IFAC’s new model for advancing accountancy education in the public interest, following the dissolution of the International Accounting Education Standards Board (IAESB), which issued the International Education Standards (IESs).

The new approach integrates the work of IFAC’s staff, a diverse group of volunteers and the wider education director community, allowing IFAC to be aware of challenges and opportunities facing accountancy education, and to determine appropriate responses, explains Vivian, who took on his role in early 2023. One of its advisory groups, the International Panel on Accountancy Education, draws individuals from professional accounting organizations, firms, academia and accountants in business.

Partridge, who was a technical advisor on the IAESB, says she couldn’t pass up the chance to be involved with the new platform. “I had the opportunity to see how the development of the IESs formed the basis for all professional and aspiring professional accountants globally which fuelled my own passion in advocating for life-long learning,” she says. In the three years she has been at IFAC, she has seen the platform evolve. “In addition to maintaining the IESs and developing thought leadership, we have leaned into IFAC’s unique ability to convene stakeholders on a global stage to tackle some of the challenges our profession is facing,” Partridge says.

With the need for a focus on sustainability in the IESs, based on stakeholder outreach, IFAC has committed to revising the standards. At the end of April, IFAC issued its first public consultation for proposed revisions to the IESs since the launch of the new model, with revisions addressing sustainability and assessment of professional competence. “The Hong Kong Institute of CPAs already provided input to this project during the information gathering phase, and we hope to hear your feedback on the draft revisions,” says Vivian.

The Accountancy Education platform provides support for member organizations as they work to adopt and implement the IESs. “The HKICPA has shared with IFAC that your education requirements follow the latest IESs, and in some areas are more stringent,” says Vivian.

As the learning journey for accountants never stops, the platform’s focus isn’t just the lead up to qualification, stresses Partridge. It also considers what is needed for seasoned accountants. “Topics such as sustainability, anticorruption, technology, and how we support professional accountancy organizations in helping their members remain current in these areas is at the top of the agenda on many stakeholder discussions.”

Helen Partridge was named Chief Financial Officer of IFAC in 2023. Before joining the organization, she spent 16 years with PwC in audit, advisory and audit systems design in the United States and Asia Pacific.

A complex issue

The talent-shortage challenge has become a real problem in the profession, and is not unique to Hong Kong. Vivian notes that while in some countries, the profession currently has no problem attracting enough talent, the shortage of accountants is prevalent particularly in the well-developed world. “Some jurisdictions are actually growing while others are facing a talent shortage. I think in part this is because, as a profession we are being asked to take on more with areas such as sustainability. Trying to do more with the same talent pool is always going to result in a talent shortage,” points out Partridge.

Root causes differ around the world but one of the common issues identified by IFAC relates to how some accounting courses, typically focused on the basics of accounting, paint a false picture of an accountant’s work and career. “Many young people walk away from accounting before they have even been exposed to what an accountant really does!” says Vivian.

“We need to put our best educators and best educational content at the earliest moments that students encounter accounting classes, making sure we clearly show the critical role of professional accountants in organizations, capital markets, the economy and society. We need to show that the profession is not just for ‘numbers-people,’ but for people who want interesting, meaningful and productive careers that contribute to economic growth and sustainable development.”

Telling better stories

Another key issue they have seen is the perception gap, which, as Vivian explains, is the gap between how the profession is perceived by young people and the reality of the nature of the work. “We need to get better at telling the story about our profession and the unlimited opportunities it offers,” he says.

Partridge agrees. She highlights that in United States, when she tells students she is an accountant, “it is almost always automatically associated with tax season and seen as boring and compliance-focused.” But when she explains her critical role as CFO and what that involves – taking on higher-order work; working with a multi-disciplinary team to measure and forecast carbon emissions; and the travel opportunities – there is much more interest. “I am sure there are many more stories like these that reach young students considering their career path, and these need to be told,” she says.

Vivian highlights that IFAC recently published a short paper summarizing the challenge and recommending potential solutions to including how to close the perception gap, and how to ensure the profession is as accessible as possible.

Both believe that addressing these staffing issues should be a combined effort. “We need every professional accountant, every educator, every leader, and even every parent who wants the best for their children, to be supporting these efforts. Certainly, organizations like the HKICPA can play a leading and coordinating role, but we don’t solve complex problems alone. We need to work together,” says Vivian.

Partridge goes even broader, envisioning a world without professional accountants. “Imagine the risk this would pose to organizational strategies, financial markets and economies in general,” she says. “That is why all stakeholders should have a vested interest in helping professional accountancy organizations change this perception of a career in accountancy and the value it can bring.”

Bruce Vivian, Head of Accountancy Education, is a qualified Chartered Accountant in South Africa. Before joining IFAC, he was a senior manager of professionalization at the African Organisation of Englishspeaking Supreme Audit Institutions.

Changing lives

As someone who has worked as a teacher in a classroom of aspiring and qualified professional accountants, Vivian has experienced a fair share of “Aha” moments. “I remember a teacher once explaining that she loved teaching because of the “Aha” moments – those moments when a student finally grasps a challenging concept. I have been fortunate to experience some of those myself,” he says.

But today, witnessing accountants complete the qualification journey is something he feels even more fortunate about. “I have heard countless stories of individuals who found a route out of poverty for themselves and their family, through the profession. I have learnt that as an accountancy education community, anything we do that increases the chances that such students complete that journey is life-changing.”

“We need to get better at telling the story about our profession and the unlimited opportunities it offers.”

Before joining IFAC in 2021, Vivian held roles in the public, private and non-profit sectors, including working in a Big Four firm, a supreme audit institution, an African regional organization, and a local church. He has also worked in different parts of the accountancy education eco-system, not only as a teacher but also overseeing practical experience programmes, developing learning programmes and designing assessments, he says. “Through these roles, I have had the chance to learn from true education experts and be reminded that my own learning journey never stops.”

Partridge, who was named CFO in April 2023, previously worked at PwC Hong Kong/China where she was responsible for working with, and auditing, clients implementing U.S. Sarbanes-Oxley Section 404. She says that her experience in advising and auditing processes and controls and in systems design and development as an accountant at PwC U.S. helps her better work with her current finance team as they take on a technology transformation and her experience auditing business combinations and valuations help her to lead IFAC’s carbon strategy discussions. “My diverse career, both geographically and in the nature of the clients served, has elevated my appreciation of risks and their mitigants both current and future. But it is the opportunities presented throughout my career as educator, mentor and trusted advisor that have fuelled my passion for the education of our profession,” she adds.

Partridge also manages IFAC’s sustainability and carbon footprint reporting. “The notion that our 50-person organization with such a huge remit could also start to develop a forecast for carbon emissions seemed beyond our reach until we started to break it down to the individual components and walk through the process to developing a forecast of such... The team started to see the possibilities and it was wonderful to be part of,” she recalls.

Beyond education, Partridge is also a supporter of financial literacy, believing it to be a stepping stone into a profession that both her and Vivian so clearly love. “My own seven-year-old daughter is already learning the basics of checking versus savings accounts, budgeting and prioritizing – I enjoy her “Aha” moments also.”

Amid increasing market demand for sustainability reporting and assurance, IFAC issued a public consultation on proposed revisions to the International Education Standards (IES) 2, 3 and 4 – Sustainability on 24 April. The planned revisions will address a need for a focus on sustainability in the IES.

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