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1 December 2013 CFA Institute Journal Review

Teaching Global Ethical Standards: A Case and Strategy for Broadening the Accounting Ethics Curriculum (Digest Summary)

  1. Martin A. Wildy, CFA

The existing ethics component of the accounting curriculum is far from perfect and does not adequately encompass non-Western or contemporary Western ethical thinking. The authors examine the ethics content of accounting textbooks in Australia and propose a more diverse, thematic approach for teaching ethics to accounting students.

What’s Inside?

The authors’ focus is to review and recommend improvements to the ethics component of the educational guidelines established by the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC). They provide a review of different approaches to accounting ethics education and highlight their concerns. They argue that the diversity of the existing ethics content needs to be increased and discuss practical barriers to accomplishing this objective. Their recommendation is to incorporate a thematic approach to teaching ethics as a way of broadening the curriculum while addressing practical teaching limitations.

How Is This Research Useful to Practitioners?

Ethical integrity is highly important in the global accounting profession. The IFAC believes it is essential that future accountants not view the treatment of values, ethics, and attitudes as peripheral to their main accounting education. But when the authors review the ethics content of best-selling accounting textbooks in Australia, they find that the number of pages that cover ethics averages only 3.3% of the total content. This ratio is even lower (1.9%) for introductory accounting textbooks. They also find the ratio of ethics readings to questions to be much lower for introductory texts compared with advanced texts. The authors recommend that a greater emphasis be put on ethics theory, particularly for introductory students.

The primary content-related concern is that the existing texts are dominated by traditional Western theories, specifically utilitarianism, Kantian deontology (duty-based ethics), and virtue ethics. The authors advocate including contemporary Western theories, such as discourse ethics, and non-Western ethical traditions, such as Confucianism. They argue that including a more diverse set of ethics theories will benefit both Western and non-Western students. A challenge associated with including additional theories is that it may overwhelm accounting instructors who are not formally trained in ethics education.

The proposed solution is to introduce additional theories as a series of thematic contrasts to the standard theories. This thematic approach would include ethical ideals from diverse ethical traditions without requiring instructors to learn and present fully developed accounts of these theories.

This topic will be of particular interest to the IFAC and accounting educators worldwide. Those involved in developing curriculum for a global audience and those seeking an overview of the theoretical framework behind ethical decision making would also benefit. Although these recommendations are focused on the accounting profession, they likely have broader implications for how ethics are taught in other areas of finance.

How Did the Authors Conduct This Research?

The IFAC plays a key role in accounting qualifications worldwide by distributing International Education Standards (IES) through its 159 member bodies in 124 countries. As a proxy for global accounting ethical standards, the authors review the IFAC’s IES4, which covers the professional and ethical component of accounting education. Because IES4 does not specify the content or method of delivery for ethics education, the authors conclude that educators will rely on accounting textbooks and IFAC publications for their courses.

They review the content of 26 of the best-selling accounting textbooks in Australia and categorize them as introductory, financial accounting, management accounting, or audit and assurance. They define ethics-related content as any content in which the ethical or social obligations of accountants are discussed. They also review the ethics content of the IFAC’s ethics education resources.

The authors’ criticism of the amount of ethics content in accounting curriculum is based solely on their review of Australian textbooks. It is possible that these concerns may be less pronounced in other countries. As a result, there may be a benefit to expanding the sample to include accounting textbooks from other countries. Although it is hard to argue with the approaches outlined in this paper, a challenge with this type of analysis is that it is difficult to measure how the proposed changes will affect outcomes.

Abstractor’s Viewpoint

On first review, this article appears to have a somewhat narrow application. But the authors’ critique of ethics educational content, including how this subject is covered in popular accounting texts, may suggest a broader challenge for the financial services industry. Although there is plenty of discussion surrounding the importance of ethics, a key question remains: Does the amount and composition of existing ethics curricula encourage students to develop professional values, ethics, and attitudes and to view ethics-related content more than peripherally? It would be beneficial to determine whether these criticisms also apply to ethics educational content in other financial professions.

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