Given the current focus on strengthening the accounting profession following the financial disasters particularly in the U.S., including Enron and WorldCom, and the more recent global financial crisis, the importance of developing and enhancing university accounting education has been repeatedly discussed (e.g., Carnegie and Napier, 2010, Evans et al., 2010, IFAC, 2007a, Jackling and De Lange, 2009, Jackling and Keneley, 2009 and PricewaterhouseCoopers, 2003).2 In Australia, ‘professional accreditation’ has been used by the accounting professional bodies3 to monitor accounting programs in higher education institutions. As such, it is considered by universities as a symbol which indicates that their accounting programs meet some external ‘quality’4 standards.
However, universities cannot rely on professional accreditation alone to promote their accounting programs (Jackling and Keneley, 2009 and Lightbody, 2010). It is important to note that the market drives the profile, responsibilities, and career options of accountants in the business world (Carnegie and Napier, 2010, Jackling and De Lange, 2009 and Sauser, 2000). One of the responsibilities of universities is therefore to ensure that accounting graduates are equipped with the knowledge and skills identified by the market as desirable for accounting professional practice (AAA, 1986, AECC, 1990, Johns, 2006 and Hancock et al., 2009a). Simply aligning university accounting programs with the accreditation guidelines may not necessarily increase the employability of accounting graduates.
The purpose of this study is to provide empirical evidence on the extent to which an accredited accounting degree program of a prominent Australian university produces graduates with the knowledge and skills required by the market. The findings of the study reveal some inconsistencies between the current accounting program and market expectations with respect to program composition and emphasis, as well as the need to incorporate a specialized area.
This study is motivated by the recruitment reality of accounting graduates. While the number of accounting graduates has grown rapidly in Australia, there has been a serious shortage of professional accountants (Birrell, 2006). It was reported in 2006 by the Australian Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEWR), 72% of employers believe there is a shortage of qualified accountants, and 32% of employers have up to a third of accounting vacancies unfilled (DEWR, 2006).
Many researchers have pointed out the changing nature of accounting work over time (e.g., Carnegie and Napier, 2010, Howieson, 2003 and Jeacle, 2008). For example, in the past, it was common to label accountants as being dull, boring and colorless, and to use the term “bean counters” to describe their public image. Accounting conventions mainly emphasized quantitative recording, financial calculation and historical accounting for stewardship of resources (Carnegie and Napier, 2010, Chambers, 1999, Dimnik and Felton, 2006, Friedman and Lyne, 1997, Howieson, 2003, Jackling and Calero, 2006, Jeacle, 2008, Parker, 2000, Parker, 2001, Rebele, 1985 and Sauser, 2000). Contemporary accounting practice, on the other hand, is believed to be involved in matters beyond the numbers (IFAC, 2005 and Jeacle, 2008). Today, accountants are more involved than before in consulting and business advisory services due to the increasing demand for financial and non-financial information and business advice, and they are also expected to work in diverse business areas, such as production, human resource management, marketing, logistics and general management (Carnegie and Napier, 2010, IFAC, 2003b, Parker, 2001 and Sauser, 2000). With the changing nature of accounting work, currently accountants are often known as “knowledge professionals” with a global mind-set (Carnegie and Napier, 2010, Howieson, 2003 and Jeacle, 2008) or “gatekeepers” of the public interest (Carnegie and Napier, 2010 and IFAC, 2005).
The changes in the role and domain of professional accountants are driven by the dynamics of the modern global business environment (Albrecht and Sacks, 2000, Elliott and Jacobson, 2002, Hancock et al., 2009b, Howieson, 2003, IFAC, 2003b, Jeacle, 2008, Mohamed and Lashine, 2003, Parker, 2001, Sauser, 2000 and Smith and Briggs, 1999). Universities should accordingly incorporate the market expectations to their accounting programs in order to ensure that accounting graduates are equipped with knowledge and skills required by the market and ready for the workplace. However, there are increasing criticisms that accounting education has lagged behind developments in the changing business environment (Albrecht and Sacks, 2000, Carr et al., 2006, Courtis and Zaid, 2002, Evans et al., 2010, Hancock et al., 2009a, Hancock et al., 2009b, Jackling and De Lange, 2009, Kavanagh and Drennan, 2008 and Mohamed and Lashine, 2003). For example, Mohamed and Lashine (2003) state that the gap between acquired and required skills for accountants is created due to the rapid changes in the market environment and the slow changes in the curriculum. The periodic surveys of Australian employers, accounting practitioners and accounting students regarding their expectations and assessment of accounting graduates also reveal the existence of expectation gaps among those groups in regard to the required knowledge and skills in accounting education (Courtis and Zaid, 2002, Evans et al., 2010 and Hancock et al., 2009a and Hancock et al., 2009b, Jackling and De Lange, 2009, Kavanagh and Drennan, 2008 and Mathews, 1990). For example, Courtis and Zaid (2002) and Hancock, Howieson, Kavanagh, Kent, Tempone, Segal, and Freeman (2009) point out that academics do not appear to be in line with the business community regarding the communication skills required by new accounting graduates who suffer from a lack of communication skills in their early employment. Likewise, Kavanagh and Drennan (2008) compare the expectations of accounting students and employers in terms of professional skills, and report that employers’ expectations are much higher than graduating students’ perceptions of what is required in the workplace.5
The contribution of this study is twofold. First, through an empirical examination it identifies gaps in the accounting education literature. There are many studies that highlight the deficiencies of university accounting programs. They identify the skills and competencies expected of professional accountants in order to keep up with the dynamics of the modern business environment, and emphasize the importance of designing accounting degree programs to ensure market relevance of those programs. But little research has been carried out to examine empirically the extent to which university accounting programs are in line with market expectations.
The second contribution relates to the main data collection method of this study. Prior studies usually take recent accounting graduates as a proxy for the market (e.g., Carr et al., 2006, Cheung, 2007, De Lange et al., 2006, Jackling and Calero, 2006 and Tan and Laswad, 2006); or focus on the opinions of the current accounting students (Jackling & Keneley, 2009) and university academics (Cheung, 2007, Courtis and Zaid, 2002 and Cranmer, 2006); or provide literature reviews on market demand for accounting graduates (Howieson, 2003, Mathews, 2001, Mathews, 2004 and Mohamed and Lashine, 2003). Although a limited number of studies have obtained opinions from employers about accounting graduates, the sample sizes of those studies are relatively small, and the opinions of recruitment agencies are not taken into consideration (Courtis and Zaid, 2002, Hancock et al., 2009a, Jackling and De Lange, 2009, Jackling and Keneley, 2009 and Kavanagh and Drennan, 2008). Data for this study were collected from over 300 employers and recruitment agencies.
The remainder of the paper is organized into six sections. Section 2 provides a literature review, followed by theory development in Section 3. Section 4 explains the research design. Section 5 presents the results of the study. The discussion of the results and conclusions are in the final section.