Philosophy for Accountancy is a pioneering university initiative, which envisions accounting as a rigorous academic field of study, as it introduces the breadth of the liberal arts and the depth of philosophical inquiry within the professional education curriculum. In actively engaging students and academia in critical and holistic discussions, we aim to challenge current thinking and perspectives, and introduce students and future accountants to contemporary challenges facing their profession and society in the 21st century.
The initiative works to develop in students the independent critical thinking and higher moral reasoning that will help them deal with complex global problems. It further challenges and proposes a new model of how knowledge could be constructed in accountancy, by embedding the technical knowledge and skills within a wider social frame.
We designed the Philosophy for Accountancy (P4A) programme to broaden accounting education and to help educators in supporting the development of responsible professionals. At the heart of our aims is the belief that people do not just respond to extrinsic incentives, and that as humans, we have progressed so far socially and economically because we are able to reason and act altruistically. Thus, if given the chance to develop a deeper understanding of the self and the larger system in which they function and which they impact, young professionals could develop practical wisdom and ethical commitment toward their profession.
We believe that this approach works across personal and professional development, such as:
The programme’s aim is not to present a ready-made toolkit, but to mobilise a collaborative network of interested academics and professionals, with whom to co-construct and test out these new approaches. To become a self-sustained initiative, we will work with various universities by building capacities in their teaching staff and provide induction into the culture of the programme.
A significant challenge within accountancy studies is its technicality and process-oriented culture, which presents a unique challenge to how students understand, connect and internalise the purpose of the profession. In order to tackle this, the programme works to promote a framework and tools for teaching and learning that will develop a deeper interest and understanding of the social purpose and role of accountancy.
By bringing attention to emerging research in the field of learning sciences and philosophy of education, we recognise the need to emphasise a deeper understanding of the normative aspects of accountancy supported by progressive teaching and learning approaches. Our theory draws on dialogic inquiry and constructivist methods of learning, which have shown to foster to capacities of judgment, critical thinking and moral sensitivity in students. We pay particular attention to the ‘formation of professional’ through their holistic educational experience and their initiation into practice. Through this initiative, we have worked with educators to develop taught content, disruptive pedagogies and educational experiences that problematise the purpose of accounting, beyond the technical knowledge, and have worked with students to engage them in philosophical dialogue and problem-based learning projects.
Through the initiative, we bring attention to philosophical inquiry as a way to build conceptual understanding, critical thinking skills and moral reasoning that are at the core of professional skepticism, and will boost the rigour of ‘professional’ accounting education so that it becomes something to aspire to.
We aim to explore and advocate for broader professional education which has an active role in shaping the 21st century society. We envision accountancy as a rigorous social science field of study, and not as a technically oriented, procedure-oriented profession, which is the understanding of many students who choose to study it. As the renowned Professor Edward Stamp saw it – accountancy is ultimately a social science, which deals with a system created by people, hence its fundamental characteristics are constantly changing and evolving. We share this vision and aim to create a space to re-engage with normative and critical theories in accountancy, and emphasise that accountancy, as a profession and a field of study, should rethink its intellectual rigour and regain its social purpose.
The Philosophy for Accountancy programme was developed as a cross-disciplinary collaboration, which supports the spirit of the liberal arts education and its interdisciplinary approach to learning. By drawing on interdisciplinary fields of study and research, such as behavioural psychology, sociology, history and philosophy (beyond economic theories), we believe that this breadth will develop well-rounded individuals who are able to think critically and promote more active citizenship within the new generation of professionals. The philosopher Martha Nussbaum points out that economic growth is a goal but not the only goal of society, a narrow technical education does not “deliver the goods” and we need to think of the bigger picture.
To provide a breadth of learning and develop holistic understanding about the role of professionals, we have drawn on insights from learning sciences, philosophy, psychology and organisational theory. We believe that students should be introduced to the underlying micro and macro processes that impact behaviour, learning and organisational structures. By engaging students in philosophical inquiry to reflect on these factors in which the individual acts/exists, we aim to facilitate both individual metacognitive development and improve the greater design of ‘ethical systems’ – a term coined by the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt of NYU Stern School of Business.
We believe that professional education should be broader and more disruptive in driving innovation and progress in society and the economy. The humanities and social sciences are important fields of study that preserve a healthy society and are fundamental for every professional – doctors, engineers or accountants. That is why the programme takes a liberal arts approach, as it argues for fundamental abilities of critical thinking, compassion, imagination, empathy, and creativity. Our aim is to promote this ultimate vision for professional education and propose ways to integrate it within the professional curricula, which could take a three-level approach:
The following graphic illustrates how P4A aims to connect technical knowledge with a broader context of society and the economy. It presents an approach that further informs the well-rounded content of the initiative. While technical expertise is at the centre of professional education, our aim is to situate this knowledge within a wider social frame, which further contextualises and motivates students to work towards a greater purpose.
In 2014-2015, we engaged with Manchester Business School to test our theory in a year-long pilot programme, integrated as part of the ‘Auditing and Professional Accounting Practice’ class of Penny Clarke. These monthly seminars introduced the tools of philosophical inquiry and facilitated discussions to a room of 45 first-year undergraduate accounting students. The success of the pilot programme has encouraged us to develop a wider educational initiative, which has engaged and partnered with leading business schools in the UK and US.
Coupled with new methods of dialogic inquiry, the sessions integrated topics that worked to contextualise and broaden the knowledge that students had gained from other classes. We further integrated topics from sociology, psychology and philosophy in order to open up the scope of knowledge in accountancy. The aim was to provide the larger social context and purpose of the profession as a key to developing commitment and passion in students. Throughout the year, we witnessed how students’ reasoning skills progressed and how their interest and engagement significantly improved.
Using surveys, observations and interviews, we have examined how this method of teaching and learning has impacted young accountancy students in developing practical wisdom and independent critical thinking. The year-long programme has given us the opportunity to engage with students on a more personal level and impact their progress and development, which has involved the following measures:
The philosophical inquiry method was shown to help the majority of students develop and engage in principled thought, as the year progressed. By engaging tools for critical thinking, students improved their ability to critically unpack and question key knowledge concepts, such as professionalism, public interest, ethicality, values, virtues, professional norms and codes. Nevertheless the cultural diversity within the classroom, we were pleased to witness that the open circle discussions helped students improve their self-esteem and willingness to voice and change opinions.
The overall success of the programme was evaluated by students in the interviews conducted at the end of the academic year, and here are some of their inspiring insights:
I think that the education system is a bit broken, because you expect to be forced down all these textbooks and expected to memorise answers, and this is why students probably hate exams because you don’t bring life into the subject…
The way that this programme could be assimilated into other courses, could be to let students actually think about why in practice we do things in a certain way. I think that by making students understand the reasons and the principles behind these practices,they will be actually looking forward to going to class.
It’s nice to have these discussions, because you can share your ideas. You can sit in a circle and see each other…whereas [in other courses] you are just behind a desk, while listening to a speaker lecturing with slides.
The P4A sessions challenged us to think outside the box, which helped us in other modules as well.
As part of our collaboration with Manchester Business School, we filmed a short documentary which captured reflections and insights from students and teachers. The film offers unique blend of candid conversations and discussions.