What does an accounting academic do?

Posted by Kevin McMeeking - Aug 13, 2018

Students and the public often perceive academics as teachers, and have no idea of the many other important roles that one undertakes. This paper reflects on the daily life of an academic accounting. 

Written by Dr. Rhoda Brown and Trustees of the British Accounting and Finance Association (Chris Brooks, John Cullen, Lisa Jack, Richard Jackson and Kevin McMeeking)

Most accounting academics have an anecdote concerning questions from well-meaning relatives or friends about what it is, exactly, that they do. Variants on this story involve the expression of disbelief that anyone could study for a PhD or undertake any sort of meaningful research in accounting, because accounting is all about balance sheets. In some limited respects, there is a degree of truth in the idea that accounting is primarily about the numbers but in other, far more important respects, the numbers are the least of it. The view of accounting on the one hand as a dry, technical, quantitative discipline somehow exists in the popular imagination alongside, on the other hand, perceptions of involvement in creative accounting, tax avoidance, banking crises, and corporate and public sector financial scandals – with no recognition contradictions inherent in these very different perspectives.

To those with more expertise in the area, the technical skills of accounting are little more than a barrier to entry: the real substance of the discipline is about the allocation of resources, the measurement of performance, accountability, financial politics and the ways in which accounting can (dis)incentivise hard work and/or cause people and organisations to behave in accordance with, or contrary to, societal norms. Given the extent to which individuals are invested in capital markets, via their pension schemes, accounting plays a more important role in life than many people realise, in providing information to keep markets efficient, to keep companies honest and to enable investors to assess levels of risk. Recently, the scope of accounting has expanded to include softer, more qualitative aspects of performance such as corporate social responsibility accounting, narrative reporting and growing recognition of the value of intangibles.

One of the consequences of the funding pressure in universities in recent years has been the requirement for academics, particularly those in less traditional disciplines, to justify their reason for being and, in the case of accounting, this includes explaining not only what accounting academics do but also what we offer that is not provided by professional accountancy training. A question we are asked increasingly is why should an eighteen-year-old school leaver spend three or four years studying for an under-graduate degree in accounting, accumulating student debt, when they could enrol in one of the professional training programmes offered by accounting firms, start earning immediately and obtain their professional qualification sooner? The answer is that a good university degree adds something rather different to the student’s skillset than a professional qualification.

There are several ways in which the scholarship of academic accountants adds value to the discipline of accounting and to the education and development of accounting students. The first is a traditional feature of a good under-graduate programme. It develops the intellectual capacity of students and teaches them how to think for themselves. While it is undoubtedly true that professional training also develops the intellect, the development involved in this case involves an essential but rather narrow, technical way of looking at the world. In accounting degrees, because those teaching the programmes engage in research and other scholarly activities, the intellectual development involved is broader and draws on different models of empirical, theoretical and philosophical reasoning.

Regardless of where students find their subsequent employment, skills of thinking, reasoning and constructing a balanced argument are going to be useful, whether they are dealing with the internal politics and budgetary constraints of organisations or developing strategies to handle external, environmental pressures. The second important characteristic of academic accounting lies in its consideration of the context in which accounting operates. It provides a basis for understanding all the aspects of accounting, not just about the numbers, which form the main substance of the discipline. Academic accounting draws together both the thinking skills and understanding of context to enable both students and researchers to analyse accounting issues more critically – and it is only through this deeper analysis that accountants and those affected by accounting can hope to effect change and improve the way the world works.

Ultimately, the combined skill set of critical thinking, understanding of context and reasoned argument can create individuals with advanced problem-solving skills that are sorely needed by organisations and society. These skills also combine very effectively with more technical and financial skills. Thus, what we are aiming for in the design of academic accounting programmes is graduates with relevant, up-to-date technical skills, the critical thinking skills to analyse problems and understand how to solve them and the skills in reasoning and rhetoric to enable them to communicate their ideas effectively. The same set of skills is the basis for accounting research, the results of which inform the design/content of academic programmes. An independent, critical analysis of the practices and taken-for-granted assumptions of the financial world is important if we are ever to change the system for the better and reduce incidences of financial misdemeanours and inequities.

The problem facing accounting researchers, however, is that for a whole range of historical and structural reasons, there are relatively few outlets for their research publications. The majority of those that exist are not rated as highly as those outlets in other disciplines. Consequently, the paper rejection rates from the top journals far exceed 90% and the authors who succeed in this environment are predominantly from very well-resourced US Schools. This, along with other factors such as the expansion in academic staff time needed to teach the increasing numbers of students recruited by universities, has meant that over time, it has become harder and harder for academics to publish accounting research.

All of this has taken its toll on academic accounting. Faced with a decision between recruiting a new accounting professor or a professor from a discipline where it is easier to publish research and to obtain research funding, senior managers in universities have tended to favour the other disciplines. Recruitment in accounting is increasingly either at the junior level, or for education and scholarship (non-research) staff to service expanding degree programmes. This, in combination with the overall lack of understanding about what academic accounting research and scholarship is about has led to a crisis in university accounting departments. We now have now reached a point where a whole generation of accounting professors are retiring; there are large numbers of new recruits with heavy teaching loads and little chance of publishing their research. In addition, there are very few senior lecturers to succeed the senior academics, mentor the new recruits and continue the research tradition.

This arises from a lack understanding of both the market for accounting academics and what academic accountants do. It is easy to identify the financial and political pressures that have led academic accounting departments to this point. What is less obvious is how we might shift the balance. Unless we manage to raise consciousness about the value of academic accounting, we will be left with decimated accounting departments, demotivated and lacking leadership, where teaching reflects only current, technical accounting practices and accounting research founders. There will be two likely results of this. The first is a generation of students with underdeveloped skills and no critical understanding of the behavioural consequences of those accounting practices. The second is the loss of accounting PhD programmes and the engaged research that many accounting academics produce, along with the knowledge transfers that such research generates.

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