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Ethics Education in the Qualification of Professional Accountants: Insights from Australia and New Zealand

Abstract

This paper investigates how ethics is incorporated in the qualification process for prospective professional accountants across Australia and New Zealand. It does so by examining the structure of these qualification processes and by analysing the learning objectives and summarised content for ethics courses that prospective accountants take either at university or through the post-degree programs provided by CPA Australia and Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand. We do this to understand how the ‘sandwich’ approach to teaching ethics (Armstrong, Journal of Accounting Education 11(1):77–92, 1993) is implemented. This approach advocates a standalone ethics course, followed by ethical cases that are integrated across accounting courses, and subsequently a capstone course that combines ethics and professionalism. We test the extent to which this approach is adopted and examine how its application relates to the components of moral behaviour (Rest, Moral development: Advances in research and theory, Praeger Publishers, New York, 1986). The results provide three significant contributions. The first is that the ‘sandwich’ approach is not in place for most prospective accountants as only a minority of programs include a mandatory course with a substantial ethics component, and this is more likely in undergraduate rather than postgraduate programs. The second contribution is that although moral sensitivity and moral judgement are widely considered, little attention is given to issues of moral motivation and moral character. We suggest that change is unlikely without explicit ethical education requirements from the professional accounting bodies. The paper also makes a final contribution by proposing a more nuanced typology characterising the degree to which ethics is incorporated in particular courses.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    This paper adopts the term ‘program’ for degrees, whether undergraduate or postgraduate, and the term ‘course’ for the subjects/courses/units of which these programs are comprised.

  2. 2.

    There are three professional accounting associations in Australia and New Zealand: CPA Australia (approximately 160,000 members CPA Australia 2017a), Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand (CA ANZ, approximately 110,000 members CA ANZ 2017c), and the Institute of Public Accountants (IPA, approximately 35,000 members Institute of Public Accountants 2017). While CPA Australia and CA ANZ are high profile professional bodies with membership across all sectors of commerce and industry, and with designations that are highly recognisable internationally (‘CPA’ and ‘Chartered Accountant’), the IPA is less prominent and has a particular focus on the small business sector. As the IPA is considerably smaller than either CPA Australia or CA ANZ, the focus of this study is on programs that are accredited by CPA Australia and CA ANZ.

  3. 3.

    It is worth noting that research that has analysed the views of various accounting faculty provides more mixed results, see, for example Blanthorne et al. (2007), Sugahara and Boland (2011), Hurtt and Thomas (2008) and Madison and Schmidt (2006). This may suggest that those most closely involved in managing programs are more in favour of an integration-only approach, which in turn reflects practical difficulties associated with developing and maintaining a standalone course.

  4. 4.

    Note that CPA Australia and CA ANZ jointly accredit institutions in Australia and New Zealand, although there are minor differences in terms of the courses that students are required to complete. As CPA Australia is the less prescriptive, their list of accredited programs was used.

  5. 5.

    As Torrens University Australia only commenced operations in 2015, student numbers were estimated at 1,000 for the purposes of this study.

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Appendix: Illustrative Course Learning Objectives and Summarised Content

Appendix: Illustrative Course Learning Objectives and Summarised Content

‘Ethical Thought and Action’ (Bond University 2017)

Course Learning Objectives

  1. (1)

    Demonstrate knowledge and understanding of ethical principles, norms and values.

  2. (2)

    Demonstrate skills of analysis, reasoning, and communication with which to address ethical challenges and dilemmas.

  3. (3)

    Demonstrate the ability to implement and promote ethically appropriate choices in personal and professional contexts.

Summarised Course Content

Using an applied case-based approach, this subject helps students gain ethical awareness, develop relevant reasoning skills, and empower themselves to act ethically in personal and professional contexts. This interdisciplinary subject explores critical ethical issues in science, law, business, media, and the environment. Topics remain flexible to reflect the dynamic nature of ethical issues in the twenty-first century.

‘Principles of Responsible Business’ (University of Wollongong 2017)

Course Learning Objectives

  1. (1)

    Explain the importance of individual rights and responsibilities in responsible and ethical commerce.

  2. (2)

    Demonstrate an appreciation of the historical context of today’s commercial principles and practices.

  3. (3)

    Identify and explain ethical approaches to contemporary enterprise in commerce.

  4. (4)

    Identify and critically evaluate the key challenges proposed by contemporary social, economic and legal systems to responsible and ethical decision making in commerce.

  5. (5)

    Communicate reasoned arguments and demonstrate critical thinking to apply responsible and ethical principles to organisational decision making.

  6. (6)

    Demonstrate an understanding of the use of specified information and communication technologies.

Summarised Course Content

The subject provides students with a conceptual tool kit for understanding and practising responsible and ethical commerce. The topics covered will include the origins of contemporary systems of commerce, ethical and social responsibility in commerce and developments in ethical and responsible commerce. Areas addressed include the environment, globalisation, technology, anti-corruption, labour and human rights. Students will examine these issues from a variety of theoretical and practical perspectives and apply them to contemporary commercial contexts.

‘Accounting Thought and Ethics’ (RMIT University 2017)

Course Learning Objectives

  1. (1)

    Critically evaluate and explain the major developments in accounting theories, accounting practices and ethical issues.

  2. (2)

    Compare and contrast the implications of differing research methods (induction and deduction) in the financial reporting context.

  3. (3)

    Research and evidence the applications of relevant theories into complex ‘real world’ cases to solve accounting and business ethics-related issues, to both accountant and non-accountant audiences.

  4. (4)

    Assess the role of accounting in society, and demonstrate a high level of accountability frameworks embraced in the course.

  5. (5)

    Execute financial service practice in a responsible and ethical manner expected by the professional and organisational contexts.

  6. (6)

    Communicate ideas and arguments clearly, logically and concisely, both verbally and in writing.

Summarised Course Content

The purpose of this course is to focus on the context of theoretical and empirical underpinning of financial accounting and professional ethics in accounting. The course links theory to research and practice. The behaviour of the parties responsible for preparing financial accounting information and those who use this information are interpreted through application of different accounting theories. As such, it addresses the ‘why’ question in financial accounting rather than the ‘how’. Further, moral dimensions and ethical aspects of professionals in financial services are reasoned through the lenses of various theories and principles. This reinforces the role of financial service professionals in the competitive and complex business environment and their significance to the society. A number of contemporary accounting and ethical issues are examined to illustrate these ideas.

This course provides you with a capstone experience, which will give you the opportunity to integrate, critically reflect on and consolidate what you have learnt in your program.

‘Business Law and Ethics’ (Queensland University of Technology 2017)

Course Learning Objectives

  1. (1)

    Identify key legal institutions and apply legal and regulatory perspectives relevant to business practice in Australia.

  2. (2)

    Apply legal knowledge and reasoning skills to analyse and respond to legal problems and to justify explanations, decisions and advice.

  3. (3)

    Use written communication skills to discuss and apply knowledge of the role of ethical theories and perspectives with respect to business practice.

Summarised Course Content

This course integrates the concepts and principles of business law with the theories and applications of business ethics. The course makes extensive use of cases in law and ethics to develop knowledge and skills that enable students to analyse, apply and evaluate the legal principles and ethical decision-making processes relevant to modern business practice.

BSB111 introduces students to the Australian legal environment in which they will be conducting business, and addresses specific legal issues that relate to business, such as contract law, consumer law and negligence. It also recognises the need for the business leaders of tomorrow to act in accordance with society’s ethical standards. These issues are pertinent regardless of which field of business a student may choose to major in.

The aim of this course is to increase students’ awareness and understanding of how to approach matters of legal and ethical significance and thereby to operate more effectively in a regulatory environment. This course will help students to not only acquire such an understanding, but will also help them to develop an ability to apply the law to different scenarios and to develop moral reasoning and problem solving in relation to ethical issues that go beyond mere legal compliance.

‘The Environment of Business and Economics’ (University of Otago 2016)

Course Learning Objectives

  1. (1)

    Develop an appreciation of ethics from multicultural perspectives and, also, within an international business environment.

  2. (2)

    Understand and demonstrate the frameworks and structures of conducting business in a number of cultural contexts from around the world.

  3. (3)

    Appreciate the nature of financial reporting and accountability across different countries and be able to provide critical reflection on these topics.

  4. (4)

    Strengthen abilities to communicate effectively in a multicultural business environment, including an appreciation of various business-related disciplines.

  5. (5)

    Develop a research plan that incorporates the learning objectives, as listed above, to apply appropriate methods to an investigation and to summarise and communicate the results.

Summarised Course Content

Provides exposure to multi-cultural and international influences on business and global economics, including communications, governance, accountability and ethics. Designed to develop skills for graduates working in all international environments.

‘Business, Environment and Society in the Tropics’ (James Cook University 2016)

Course Learning Objectives

  1. (1)

    Analyse key drivers of change to business practices in a tropical context.

  2. (2)

    Explain how organisations can be ethically, corporately and socially responsible in achieving sustainable practice.

  3. (3)

    Discuss the principles of diversity management.

  4. (4)

    Examine key features of the four functions of management in the context of organisational structures.

  5. (5)

    Appreciate business and management principles that apply specifically in a tropical environmental context.

Summarised Course Content

This subject explores the external and internal environmental context of business and organisational practices in the tropics. It examines different facets of management operating in remote locations experiencing constraints on resources. The subject places emphasis on the fundamental building blocks of management: plan, organise, lead and control, which are crucial to starting, growing and maintaining a successful business. Prominence is also placed on the contemporary drivers of global, societal and regional change, such as, sustainability, cultural perspectives, CSR, ethical accountability and governance.

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West, A., Buckby, S. Ethics Education in the Qualification of Professional Accountants: Insights from Australia and New Zealand. J Bus Ethics 164, 61–80 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-018-4064-2

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Keywords

  • Accounting education
  • Accounting ethics
  • Australia
  • Ethics education
  • New Zealand
  • Professional education
  • Professional ethics