What does a Professor of Accounting do?

by Carol A Adams

Main points:

  • The role of accounting academics in driving change in practice and policy has lacked visibility
  • Academics have critical thinking skills of value to the profession, business and policy makers

When people ask me what I do for a living, I wonder what they imagine it involves.  Do they think of Professors as people who don’t/can’t practice and accountants as people who do tax returns and read balance sheets?  Professors are change agents in their fields and Professors of Accounting have highlighted issues and signalled inevitable developments in accounting and accountability.  But misconceptions might explain the derisory comments I’ve heard over the years about the value accounting academics can bring to real world business situations, professional issues and policy development.

Most Professors of Accounting that I know have professional accounting qualifications and have worked as accountants and auditors.  Some have been in senior management roles, either within universities or prior to becoming academics, and most have led teams and managed large projects.  A number serve on Boards or external committees or advisory groups.

My colleagues have a deep understanding of the influences of accounting, reporting and governance practices on business and society and vice versa.  Their PhD and research training bring rigour and credibility to their research findings.

Many engage with practice and practitioners and a few seek to inform policy and engage with regulators.  Professors supervise PhD students, prepare and deliver lectures and seminars; it’s essential they keep up with developments in their field.  Being professionally trained and experienced at planning their time and managing staff in their former roles, accounting academics, also tend to get involved in course development and university administration. Some professors take on management and leadership roles within universities, success at which requires an adeptness in stakeholder consultation and effective communication.

Academic accounting disciplines represent the breadth of accounting practice (management accounting, financial accounting, public sector accounting and so on), but also go beyond current professional training and practice to address future skills needs.  For example, accounting researchers were talking about the interconnectedness of accounting with other business functions and society long before the term ‘integrated thinking’ was coined.  Research and teaching on social, environmental and behavioural issues has been conducted by accounting academics for decades.  Looking beyond the numbers and accountability for broader aspects of a business is at last growing in popularity. But when I took my first university post in the 1980s, there seemed to be no other place for a female accountant concerned with social justice and environmental sustainability to go.

A broader sense of accountability is taught in many mainstream university accounting courses. Being a Professor of Accounting is not just about teaching how to generate financial numbers and accounting techniques.   It is about understanding context, implications, consequences and broader accountability, not just balancing a budget.

Outside the ivory towers in 2018

The opportunities to make real impact, not only on students, but on practice and policy are rewarding.  Here are a few examples from 2018.

This year I gave evidence to the Australian Senate Inquiry on how the Australian Government and businesses can help achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and made submissions to five consultations/inquiries on corporate reporting and governance.  I’ve guided investors in reporting particularly on social impact and the SDGs. I attended a workshop in Scotland with representatives from business, civil society and investors where we discussed how to enhance business and investor responses to the SDGs and provided input to the Support the Goals initiative. In September I delivered the keynote address to the Japan Forum of Business and Society on ‘Strategy and reporting on societal impact and the SDGs’.

Also, in September, AdvanceHE launched a report I wrote on how universities create value for students, staff and broader society. The value of universities is much more than traditional education provision; it’s in creating community leaders and providing leadership on global challenges such as those addressed by the SDGs. This value can be expressed alongside financial information in annual reports to give a full picture of what a university is offering to the community it serves.

Committee work with professional bodies, a task force and civil society organisations has provided an opportunity to influence.  I was honoured to chair the Stakeholder Council of the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI).  The Stakeholder Council is an amazing collection of sustainability experts from a variety of interested constituencies from around the world who provide the GRI Board with strategic recommendations and input to the work of the GRI’s Global Sustainability Standards Board (GSSB).

These activities in turn inform further research and teaching.

A final (for now) word

So, like many of my colleagues, I do/can practice accounting as you might know it.  I could, but don’t, do tax returns.  I can and do read financial statements.  But there is much more (accounting) information that business leaders and communities need to have access to.  This will be increasingly important and the future generation of accountants we’re helping to shape will need to be able to provide it.

“All is not yet quite lost, but this really is the final call”

by Carol A Adams In a speech at St James’ Palace last month, His Royal Highness, Prince Charles said: "All is not yet quite lost, but this really is the final call." Speaking about climate change, he noted: having tried for so long to warn of the … [Continue reading]

Understanding key stakeholder perspectives in non-financial reporting

by Xinwu He Financial reporting has long been the major topic in Corporate Reporting courses. Traditionally, students who are trained as accountants are taught to do correct accounting treatments, produce financial statements, calculate financial … [Continue reading]

Towards better social and environmental impact reporting

by Carol A Adams Main points: Standards and guidance concerned with reporting on social and environmental issues are coalescing The UK Government seeks to increase social and environmental impact reporting The UN Sustainable Development … [Continue reading]

Let’s Talk Value: How Universities Create Value for Students, Staff and Society

Main points: Universities contribute to solving the world’s challenges and improving future workforce skills A focus on value for money, efficiency and outputs sells universities short Integrated reporting has improved university decision … [Continue reading]

Social impact, the Sustainable Development Goals and Integrated Reporting

by Carol A Adams Main points: Asset managers, Baillie Gifford, and asset owners, Cbus Superannuation Fund are seeking to report contribution to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Measuring and managing social impact and … [Continue reading]

UK FRC calls for consideration of climate change risk and importance of stakeholders to value creation

by Carol A Adams Main points: Acknowledgement that climate change presents risks for companies Recognition that stakeholders are important to the long-term success of a company Support for increasing integration of non-financial … [Continue reading]

ASX consultation on Corporate Governance Principles

by Carol A Adams Main points: 'Social licence to operate' is inappropriate as a frame for determining climate change and other sustainability risks Boards should identify sustainable development risks in their external environment … [Continue reading]

UK Green Finance Inquiry report concludes climate change risk reporting should be mandatory

by Carol A Adams Main points: Pension fund Trustees have a Fiduciary Duty to consider long term financial risks of climate change There's a lack of regulatory mechanisms in place to ensure climate change risks are incorporated into … [Continue reading]

Debate: Integrated reporting and accounting for sustainable development across generations by universities

by Carol A Adams This article aims to stimulate debate on how integrated thinking and reporting can contribute to value creation for university stakeholders and achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. Universities have significant … [Continue reading]