Are universities doing enough to prepare future accountants?
Dr. Shanshan Shi, Programme Director for the Master of Accountancy at Lingnan University
Globalization, unrelenting competition, and fast advances in information and communication technologies are some of the key compelling forces for future accountants to be equipped with new knowledge, skills, and attributes necessary for career success in the profession. Yet, universities are not doing enough to prepare students.
Accounting is the language of business. As business is ever-changing, so are the standards and practice of accounting. Accounting education is also not static. Universities constantly face challenges for the delivery of accounting education to be relevant to practices and the changing business environment. New economic reforms, government regulations and policies, technological advancements and changing business dynamics all have profound implications for accounting education.
As a former practitioner in a Big Four firm and an accounting educator for the past 13 years in Hong Kong, I am well aware of the need to prepare the next generation of accountants. In my doctoral dissertation Does the Accounting Education Prepare the Undergraduate Students Well for their Future Accounting Careers? A Hong Kong Perspective, I surveyed and collected first-hand data from current university accounting students and alumni who are currently working in accounting and related fields about their perception of the adequacy of accounting education. The results suggest they agree that though university accounting education prepares them well with core technical skills, they lack other areas of knowledge such as a broad global business perspective, communications skills, practical work experience, IT skills, and China knowledge.
There is a lot higher education can do to prepare graduates for the evolving world of professional work. Firstly, universities should prepare students to be better consultants, thinkers and communicators, instead of encouraging the mere memorization of technical rules and standards.
Secondly, amid the proliferation of big data and artificial intelligence, universities should prepare students to be tech-savvy and experts in data analytics.
Thirdly, accounting education should train students to be job-ready by offering more experiential learning opportunities, such as providing online courses for learning on one’s schedule, a mandatory co-op component in the accounting curriculum, field trips, firm visits, and guest lectures to regularly engage our students with the practitioners and the real world.
Lastly, universities in Hong Kong are encouraged to prepare students to be more knowledgeable about the unique business environment, particularly the Mainland China market, with a focus on the application of theory to topical and relevant issues.
“Though university accounting education prepares them well with core technical skills, they lack other areas of knowledge such as a broad global business perspective.”
Nicholas Au, Project Executive at the Fastlane Group
Since our incorporation, FastLane, a business advisory and practising firm, has had a plethora of interns who are in the middle of their accounting degrees. We have noticed that although these individuals are passionate, talented, and quick to learn, there is often a disconnect between the technical skills they learn in school and the practical skills an accountant generally applies in a professional setting.
While university courses teach a wide range of accounting knowledge, unless students partake in an internship, there is a lack of opportunity for them to apply their textbook knowledge to practical work. Much of the technical knowledge utilized in professional working environments can only truly be taught through experience. For universities to effectively aid their students in their transition from students to a working professionals, greater opportunities to learn and apply practical skills must be presented in the classroom.
Given the development of the Greater Bay Area, the technical skill sets required of accountants are constantly growing. As businesses continue to expand their outreach to Mainland China, many clients are seeking accountants who are not only well-versed in Hong Kong accounting practices, but can advise on accounting and business practices in the Mainland. Although we understand that universities teach their students Chinese accounting standards, greater emphasis must be made to teach this curriculum given the increased likelihood of students being exposed to it. Providing students with such a foundation will help improve their understanding of business environments outside Hong Kong, further cultivating their perspective as global citizens. It will teach them how to understand and appreciate different markets and business dynamics so that they can function well as accountants and business advisors.
When we discussed with our interns about how they balance their internship commitments with their academics, most commented that they utilize a gap semester for their work experience. Although such an arrangement allows for a greater presence at the office, many students expressed concerns about the lack of flexibility in balancing their work commitments with their academic development.
It is clear that universities can take greater steps to ensure that students develop their professional foundations, but we have seen plenty of positives. Our interns all have access to university courses that teach essential non-technical professional skills. Their experiences with these courses are invaluable to our work culture. Regardless of whether universities are doing enough to prepare future accountants, it is wonderful to see that their students are developing into well-balanced professionals who can adjust to varying environments.
“Their experiences with these courses are invaluable to our work culture.”
Karen Wong, Manager at EY, and a member of the Young Members Committee’s PRC Affairs Sub-group
Recollecting my university years, there was an abundance of occasions where my peers and I debated theories, examined accounting principles and then explored how to apply them in simulated scenarios. Never had we come across the intricacy of the roles played by a real-world accountant. In fact, some of us might not have even seen ledgers from an actual company during university. Oddly, this seems so disconnected from the very objective of university studies – in a traditional sense – which is for students to figure out their career path and to prepare them for the challenges ahead.
There are many challenges facing young accountants today. Everything from the practical application of knowledge, catching up with regulatory changes to managing emotional intelligence. But perhaps the greatest challenge is how accountants of tomorrow can cope with the ever-changing landscape of our profession – new technological trends are making our work processes faster, more cost-efficient and with a diminishing margin of error. In my current work, I have witnessed how artificial intelligence, machine learning and other advanced analytics technologies can assist us to add immense value to deliverables to our clients in exciting new ways. Work is destined to move beyond the textbook knowledge that universities have prepared young accountants for.
How can one ever prepare for this? It is not entirely about “preparation.” Why should young accountants be ready once they step out of college anyway? In hindsight, I could not imagine myself entering the workplace being fully prepared. I would not have been able to go through the gradual process of developing a working style that fits my personality and a conscientious work ethic that I feel comfortable with. This is a personal experience, one that makes each of us distinctive. It was only after a few years that I began to understand the gradations of being an accountant – and to appreciate how our profession intersects with critical decision-making.
I think we must understand that the workplace is not the “destination” for graduates. Rather, it should be the beginning of something new: for a better self, to seek answers and to ask even better questions. None of these are possible if one has already been moulded into a certain form while he or she is in university.
Of course, this is not to say university education is pointless. It challenges our mind intellectually. It helps us build a strong foundation that we can fall back on. It gives us the opportunity to explore ideas, places, and meet people that we might never have met otherwise. But universities can never teach us business sense, or how to make sound professional judgements, like the real world can. That is what makes accountants irreplaceable.
“How can one ever prepare for this? It is not entirely about ‘preparation.’”