Sustainability reporting and the global direction of accountancy education
Bruce Vivian, Head of Accountancy Education at IFAC, shares information on IFAC’s Sustainability Reporting Project and the perspectives of other accounting educators.
IFAC is a global organisation seeking to enhance the relevance, reputation, and value of the global accountancy profession. It represents millions of professional accountants worldwide through its members and associate organisations.
In 2019, IFAC established the International Panel on Accountancy Education (IPAE), whose members represent accountancy organisations, accountants in practice and business, and academics. The Panel provides IFAC with strategic advice in preparing “future-fit” accountants.
In the field of sustainability-related information, the IPAE acknowledges that professional accountants will play an important role in responding to the demand for increased transparency, disclosure of reliable information and enhanced trust. As a result, it has initiated a Sustainability Reporting Project (SRP).
The SRP focuses on the professional competencies professional accountants need to fulfil their roles in sustainability-related reporting and assurance services.
In this conversation with Bruce Vivian, Head of Accountancy Education at IFAC, he shared information about the SRP and invited perspectives from various accounting educators.
Bruce Vivian [IFAC]
Wonderful. So . . . thank you so much, Toby, and it’s really great to have you all online today. Thank you for taking some time out. You know, I’m really hoping that we can share a few insights today, but mostly from a personal, selfish perspective I’m really looking forward to learning from all of you. And I’m guessing this is a topic that many of you are thinking about. And I’m really just excited about the opportunity to get perspectives as we continue our work on this.
I am going to move us along to the first question on the Mentimeter and this is to ask you what country are you joining us from today. So, if you want to pop that in let’s see what comes up. We’ve got people from the UK. Interestingly, some identify as from England or Scotland and some identify as from the UK. That’s all good. Zimbabwe, Brazil, Ireland. So, we’ve got a good global audience. There’s definitely quite a few people from the UK, which is what we would have expected. But it’s good to see some other representation.
Okay. So, moving along to the next question, I’m going to ask you a question about what your current role is. So, I want to get a sense. I’m pretty sure we’ve got quite a few educators here.
Heavily leaning towards the educating community, which is fantastic. And that’s what we were expecting, but really grateful for others who’ve joined us today and look forward to getting all of your perspectives.
All right. So let’s move along.
Toby mentioned what IFAC is. Just a brief one from my side. IFAC is essentially the global umbrella body for the accounting profession. I’m sure many of you have heard of us. You may not know what we do, but I won’t go into all the detail. But we are essentially a membership organisation. Our members are what we call PAOs — professional accountancy organisations, and that’s the institutes. So like in the UK, ICAEW, ICAS, ACCA, AAT and the like are our members. And we do various things in support of our members, but also in the public interest. We do a lot of convening of events, a lot of thought leadership. And on the education side, we have a particular focus on a set of standards called the International Education Standards.
And so to give context to our discussion today, I want to tell you just a little bit about the education standards. Now, these education standards are a little bit unusual because unlike the other standards setting that IFAC supports, the education standards are not written for the general population of accountants to use, but they are written for our members, the institutes, and they really give a global baseline for what accountancy education should look like, particularly the pre-qualification phase of education. But we also have a couple of things to say around CPD.
Now, I’m not going to go into huge amount of detail, but what I wanted to highlight is that a number of the standards have these learning outcomes and I’m going to give you an example of what we mean by learning outcomes. Learning outcomes for initial professional development. So I’m going to ask Toby actually just to throw up a link in the chat to our education E tool where you can access the IESs. When you get there it looks a bit like this. I’m going to go into one of our international education standards — IESs.
IES 2, the one on technical competence. And when you go in there, there is a bunch of information as you’d expect in any standard. But this is where it gets interesting. We have all these different competence areas that would look quite familiar to you in terms of what you expect in an accounting qualification. When we drill down into each of those, we actually define learning outcomes that we think should be in any professional accountancy qualification. So a lot of this obviously rolls down automatically into what you might see in university education or in the in the professional examinations. So things like apply accounting principles to transactions and other events apply IFRS or other relevant standards to transactions and other events. And interestingly for our topic today, “interpret reports that include non-financial data and information”.
Now, as we look through these learning outcomes, we can essentially do the same thing through all the different learning outcomes that are in our standards. You will see that sustainability reporting is kind of implied. I mean, I don’t think we were thinking of sustainability reporting when we drafted this, but something like “Apply other relevant standards to transactions and other events.” Well, sustainability disclosure does that, but perhaps in a more forward looking way.
“Interpret reports that include non-financial data and information.” Well, of course sustainability information is non-financial.
Just to show you one more example of our standards and the type of things that they cover, we have two other ones that really have a large amount of learning outcomes. One on professional skills and one on professional values, ethics and attitudes. So I’m going to drill into that one. When we go down there, you will find that we have competence areas on professional scepticism, professional judgment, ethical principles, commitment to the public interest. So drilling down into ethical principles. These are, of course, very much at a principle level, and many of these things would apply to any services that are provided by the accountants. And so we’ll talk a little bit later around what that looks like when you apply ethics to sustainability reporting.
So why do I share all of this upfront? Well, as we move forward in our slides, we have this thing that we call the Sustainability Reporting Project. And this is a project that is looking at whether we need to revise these education standards that we write for our members and that, by the way, are used by many others. Some of you might use them when you think about developing your own curriculums used by many other education stakeholders around the world, we want to ask the question of whether we need to revise these in response to the emergence of sustainability, reporting and assurance and related services. So essentially, this is what you see on the slides.
We are currently in the process of doing outreach to collect information to help us make that decision. At the end of November, we’re going to be making that decision together with our International Panel on Accountancy Education, who is responsible together with IFAC staff to maintain these standards. And so we may make revisions, and I’m pretty certain we will also develop other publications such as non-authoritative guidance, thought leadership, or other guidance that can be issued to the global community. And so a big part of all these conversations is trying to understand where is there best practice that’s happening and what is the need, what do we need to be saying as IFAC. So these conversations today are going to be an important part of collecting some of those thoughts and perspectives.
Now, as we embark on this project, we have to think about this through different lenses. So we’ve got to make sure that we are really catering to the full sphere of the accounting profession. So we need to think about both people on the preparer side, people preparing sustainability reports, but also those on the audit side, those providing assurance of the reports.
We need to think about aspiring and existing professional accountants. So those who are in the pipeline, who many of you are teaching that are the future of our profession. what needs to happen in the curriculum that they complete as part of their journey towards a qualification? But also what about the guys who are already qualified, like me, who qualified some time back and never learned anything about sustainability reporting? What are we going to do for them?
We know that we’re supposed to be committed to lifelong learning, but is there something more specific that needs to be done just because of the significance of this new area of work? We need to think about what does everyone need to know? What’s core competence and what is more specialised? What we know is we are not trying to turn all accountants into sustainability specialists. You know, they’re not going to become environmental scientists or experts on human rights. But will it be that maybe some professional accountants end up becoming more specialised in these areas of sustainability reporting and assurance?
And then the final lens, which is really important as well, what are the needs from the perspective of large firms and corporates versus what are the needs of small, medium sized practices and SMEs? And this is particularly interesting when we think about who’s actually required to do this type of reporting. And this is obviously going to vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but we know that many publicly traded companies will have requirements to provide sustainability information as part of their annual reporting. But as we think down into smaller organisations, SMEs, non-listed companies, even if they are not required to report by regulation, we expect this trickle-down effect of the large publicly traded companies needing their suppliers, those who are in in their supply chain or in the broader value chain to provide information on their carbon emissions or on their impact on societies or whatever the other information is that they might require. So we need to keep this all in mind as we go through this process.
I encourage you, as you reflect on what you think the changes are, you think are required to keep in mind these different lenses. As we’ve been doing our outreach, we’ve been using this information gathering framework. And those of you who managed to take a look at the little pre-read that we shared would have come across this framework. Essentially what we’re doing is saying we want to understand what hasn’t changed and what’s new.
CHAT — Toby York: This is the document Bruce is referring to: https://accountingcafe.org/wp-content/uploads/1_Sustainability-Education-Outreach-Background-Information.pdf
So what hasn’t changed is where we’re talking about the competencies that professional accountants already have that are transferable to sustainability reporting and all the related services that go with it.
What’s new, that’s looking at the areas where we don’t yet have the competencies, whether that’s knowledge, skills, behaviours to deliver quality services in this area. So we’re trying to understand these two because it’s really important to recognise what we as accountants have that make us best placed to do this type of work. But we also need to be honest about the areas where we need to upskill and learn. And of course, from an IFAC perspective and education standards, we need to be thinking about what might need to change in our standards and the learning outcomes we require. in doing this, we look at four broad focus areas or competence areas, and I’m going to give some examples of that over the next slides. But business acumen, behavioural competence, technical expertise and ethical behaviour. So let me show you how this works and how I think it works and what I’m going to show you over the next slides are just examples. This is not intended to be exhaustive, but just to give you an idea of how this framework plays out for each of these focus areas.
So first up, business acumen. So when we think about what hasn’t changed, we know that professional accountants are already really good at understanding and evaluating business models. We understand regulatory industry and other external factors and we are great at evaluating the impact of strategic business decisions and we develop or evaluate an entity’s response to risk. Of course, we do many other things in the business acumen space, but just some examples.
So what’s new? Well, the breadth and the depth of understanding of governance, strategy and risk is increasing as we think about the impact more broadly of sustainability issues on the business. Our adequacy of things like governance disclosures and then long term strategic measurement and the evaluation of progress towards climate-based targets is new.
Of course, there are many other things that we’ve been hearing in our outreach, for example, the importance of systems thinking, being able to link in the business and how it operates in this broader system of, you know, of the environment, of society and of economics. Let’s take a look at behavioural competence.
What hasn’t changed? Well, accountants are already amazing at their analytical thinking, and their curiosity and commitment to lifelong learning. They are resilient, flexible, agile and operate in many different industries. We have intellectual agility.
So what’s new? Well, when we think about sustainability reporting, we know there’s going to need to be a greater emphasis on self-learning, particularly as we have to get to grips with subject matters that we haven’t typically considered in the past. And yes, we’ve got amazing professional scepticism and professional judgment, but we need to be able to apply that to a new subject matter. One of the things that we’ve been hearing as we’ve consulted with various experts on this around the world is how sustainability reporting is really not an exact science. Very often financial reporting comes with a level of accuracy and reliability that we simply don’t find when we’re trying to measure our impact on the environment or how business affects societies. So that being able to operate and apply a professional judgment, professional scepticism, to information that is far from certain is really important.
Technical expertise. Well, what hasn’t changed? I mean, so much of our core ability around reporting, around assurance, around internal controls all really remains relevant. Things like our ability to analogise various concepts to existing financial statement concepts. For example, when we know how to work with assertions. We understand processes and controls. We write, review, evaluate policies and procedures. And we’ve been regularly reviewing disclosures showing greater near-term financial risk.
But what’s new? Well, obviously, reviewing disclosure about sustainability risks. Different ways to measure. Science based metrics. Physical risks. Things like energy flows, emissions sources. Of course, it could also go into a whole lot around the social side, things like human rights and diversity. Scientific and estimation uncertainties, which I mentioned already, just the natural uncertainty in all this information, and more information obtained from external sources. One of the things we talk about on the behavioural side in the pre-read document is the need to collaborate with more experts than ever before. That’s something that’s been quite formalised in the audit profession for a long time. But on the preparer side, this need to work with many different role players within the organisation and outside the organisation. How do we do that effectively in a way that will lead to quality sustainability reporting?
And finally, ethical behaviour. And we could say a lot about this, but if we just go really, just to the most basic level, just one of the principles that we find in our code of ethics, professional competence and due care, that hasn’t changed. It’s nothing new. We are committed to making sure we are competent to do the work, any work that we take on, and that we do it with due care.
What’s new? Well, when we think about sustainability reporting, it brings with it an increased risk of management bias and new pressures to achieve long term strategic commitments. And of course, there’s many concerns about greenwashing. So how are we going to apply our code of ethics to new ethical dilemmas, new scenarios that perhaps we hadn’t thought about before? And can we use the existing frameworks that we apply to deal with these ethical dilemmas, to deal with situations that are going to arise as we prepare sustainability reports, or as we assure those reports?
Toby York [Accounting Cafe]
Vasyl is just asking what’s the collaboration with the USA on this initiative.
It is always hard to influence practice in the US just because of the size and just the, you know, level of maturity there. But certainly we are involving many of our stakeholders in the US in this outreach. In fact, our chair of the International Panel on Accountancy Education works, is a partner, at PwC in the US. And so certainly we have the perspectives. Of course, the big challenge is sometimes how do you drive the change across the system? And that is, you know, will be a challenge. But certainly they are involved in the conversation at this point is what I can definitely share.
The question going through my mind, Bruce, not necessarily for an answer now, but maybe a reflection and a wider discussion towards the end is a question that you’ve posed yourself, which is can we use the existing frameworks to address this challenge, really asking who is sustainability reporting for? Everything that accountants do so far has been very much investor focused. Is it really reasonable to be asking investors to be paying for this sort of oversight and assurance with regard to sustainability standards which aren’t necessarily in their primary interest?
So I mean, what we know Toby, is I mean, the reason why the IFRS Foundation established the ISSB, the International Sustainability Standards Board, was partly in response to demand from investors and from the regulatory community. Because so much information has been disclosed over the past five, ten years. But it’s a bit of a sort of wild, wild west of reporting that’s been happening using various frameworks and kind of the opportunity to pick and choose what you want. And so that demand has come through very clearly from the investor community and from the regulatory community to ensure that as a profession we work to bring some standardisation to the reporting.
And so from that perspective, the demand has certainly been there. And you mentioned the investor focus, and we know that with sustainability reporting it is not just about investors, that there is a, you know, many different stakeholders who have an interest in this type of information. I should have perhaps mentioned right at the beginning that for our project we really are focused on the ISSB standards and their investor focus.
But we are taking what we call a framework agnostic approach. So we acknowledge that that there are many other frameworks still out there. Think of the GRI or if we think about Europe who are implementing their own standards that take a multi-stakeholder approach. We want to try and make sure that whatever we do is relevant to all of those. But we’re very much focused on the way the profession brings that technical expertise to, and rigor to, reporting and to assurance. And I think that that applies to any framework.
Of course, the base knowledge might be slightly different and there are some unique concepts that differ across those frameworks. But overall we think that we really believe the profession is well placed to do this work, whether it’s the investor focus or whether it’s multi-stakeholder.
And maybe the last thing I’ll mention on that — IFAC’s position on this. We absolutely support the work of ISSB and we are pushing to have it adopted around the world in all jurisdictions, but we believe a building blocks approach is needed and that that forms the global baseline. But to that, you know, many jurisdictions will add on more multi-stakeholder focused reporting and obviously we see the profession being involved in both of those.
Yeah. Thanks, Bruce. Karen Aldridge has just contributed as well, saying that maybe investors need to be educated, that sustainability is in their interest. Yeah. But that’s the common good problem, isn’t it? Yeah. Good point.
Paul Thompson is asking whether or not we need sectoral supplements or guidance I think is particularly concerned about SMEs struggling more than large firms. Yeah. Is there merit in special guidance directed at how the PAOs can support them in building skills and capacity?
Yeah, absolutely. And I mean, we know that the large firms are already way ahead in developing. They’re already selling, you know, training products to the markets around sustainability reporting and helping to upskill their clients and in the wider community. But the big challenge lies in the SME / SMP community and making sure that they’re supported.
And what we hear in a lot of our outreach to date, I’m pretty sure Paul’s experience is similar, is that many accountants working at SMPs are still not convinced that this is going to be relevant to them. And so part of it’s just advocacy work but then also getting them to invest in their own upskilling and preparing their practices to be able to offer these services.
My expectation is when it comes, it’s going to come as a wave where suddenly the expectations are going to be very high if you want to remain in global supply chains. So certainly important to think about this.
You know, our education standards are obviously at the principal level, but the need for guidance that speaks to these different groups is important. And hence my mention of those different lenses that we need to be thinking about what this means in both contexts and make sure that we’re responsive to that.
Thank you. Alice Shepherd is asking, how do we know what good looks like? Because assurance standards, sustainability reporting are so variable and fragmentary, it’s difficult to know what good looks like.
Yeah. And I think it really is important to acknowledge that this is a journey and this is even part of the education needs to recognise that the maturity in this reporting is not at the level of financial reporting and it’s going to take some time to get there. That’s why we expect to see mostly limited assurance at first and over time moving towards reasonable insurance.
The exposure draft, I hope many of you have seen the exposure draft from the IAASB on ISSA 5000 Sustainability Assurance. You know that allows for both limited and reasonable and our expectation is it’s going to be a journey and that’s . . . and as, you know, as auditors you’ve got to start by working with your clients to make sure that they are putting in place the systems and processes to provide the information that is required.
So this whole issue around assessing the readiness of a client to be able to have sustainability, have assurance over their sustainability reporting is critical. Andit’s going to take time to reach high quality, clearly. But as accountants, I think we could be a part of that journey and supporting whether it’s our clients, if you’re in the audit space or whether it’s the organisations we work for to support them in the journey of getting to more mature reporting. And equally, getting the investors who you’ve mentioned to actually start using this information, getting management to make sure that they’re using this information.
One of the things I’m really conscious of and as we’ve been doing this outreach, is that there are those who are leaders in the space — the best and the brightest, those who want to make a difference. So there are some companies that are really the poster child for sustainability reporting and for sustainable business practice. But the vast majority aren’t. The average accountant is not doing this type of work yet. But as it becomes more mainstream, there’s this need to ensure that we get all of those people and those organisations on board. And hopefully, this information starts to also influence business practice.
CHAT: Paul Thompson: EFAA has published guidance to help SMPs transition, e.g., https://efaa.com/efaa-publishes-guidance-for-smps-on-sustainability-reporting/
Great. Thank you. Paul, helpfully has put a link in from the EFAA about guidance for SMPs and SMEs.
Muhammad Shaikh is asking a rather practical question, which I think should be occupying us as accounting academics and educators as well, which is what are some of the practical ways that he can add sustainability skillset to his portfolio? Well, yeah. So what are employers looking for when they start hiring for sustainability jobs? And how do you go about acquiring those skills?
Well, this is part of the challenge. I’m going to . . . as we move on, I’m going to give some thoughts a little bit later around what this looks like, you know, in accounting curricula in general. And what I’ll also do is I’ll provide a link to another page where we’ve tried to collate some of the existing courses and materials available to upskill oneself right now. But the challenge is that we don’t know the answer yet. There is no single requirement.
Many of our members are starting to offer certificates in this, starting to integrate it into their core curriculum. And so some of what we feature is the certificates that our members are offering, but this is part of why we think there needs to be just more structure towards an accountancy education perspective. So that it becomes clearer what you’re looking for in somebody that you’re going to be employing. And as somebody who’s wanting to upskill themselves, being able to make sure that you get — whether it’s certificates or designations — that are relevant and that are associated with this type of work.
Long term, we would hope that when somebody qualifies as a chartered accountant or a CPA, that it would be taken for granted that this is somebody who has competence in not just financial reporting but also sustainability reporting.
Let’s move on, Bruce.
Absolutely. And if I haven’t answered any of the questions the way you were hoping or sufficiently, you know, let’s make sure we have that conversation later.
So back to the Mentimeter. And this is really an opportunity for me to learn from you. So this is a nice, easy warm up question that requires you to assign a percentage. What I’m looking for here is what percentage of change you think is needed in existing curricula for each of these four competence areas.
And so in the Mentimeter, it’s going to give you the opportunity to assign a number from 1 to 100 where one is basically no change is needed and 100 is everything needs to change.
I see a couple of people saying 100. That’s probably a little concerning because that would mean we’re replacing our entire accounting curriculum. So I really hope there aren’t too many 100s. That’s okay. But just to see, I get a sense of where do you see like how much change do you think is required?
Right. I’m so glad we’re moving away from 100 on some of them. So this is interesting. A lot of change expected around behavioural competence, which I think makes sense. And that’s an area I think we need to probably be doing even more in the way we do accountancy education in general, but particularly in this area. Really, really interesting. So that’s super helpful.
The numbers are bigger than I was expecting, but recognising that this is a big shift and I think, you know, we would still want to really highlight that many of the competencies we have are indeed transferable to this type of work. But that does not mean we don’t have a lot to learn.
Certainly, on the business acumen side, I think that’s an area where certainly we can do a lot more and become more effective in understanding what this means for business.
Ethical behaviour. Really interesting. And perhaps that comes a bit from the fact that as a profession, we have not always been viewed in a light as having a strong ethical base, even though we believe we do have that foundation.
So excellent. I’m going to move along to the next one. And this next one, you’re going to have to actually type responses. So I’m going to ask just as you type your responses, make sure you try not to make spelling mistakes because we’re going to have a word cloud. So spelling mistakes causes issues. But I’m going to ask you to identify what you think. Now, this is to be clear, this is thinking about the existing competencies of accountants today.
What are the top three existing competencies of professional accountants that you think are most relevant to sustainability-related reporting and assurance? And the cool thing with this is you get to vote, you get three chances to submit three words or phrases, but you actually get to vote again. So I want you to put in your first three and then watch what other people are putting on the screen. If you really like what somebody else has put on the screen, type that word in again into your box and submit it as well. And that will obviously grow those words in our word cloud.
So let me give you a bit of a chance to complete that one. This is not like a high stakes exam. Copying is encouraged in this case. So if you want to copy somebody else’s, could you think what they said is brilliant? Please do. All right.
We’re getting a fantastic list going here. Keep voting and as I say you can vote more than once. This is not like the elections in your country. You get more than one opportunity to vote. So, again, if you want to copy something somebody else said to get that word bigger on the screen, please do that.
So glad to see ethics is one of the bigger words. Professional scepticism coming through, strong, communication, business acumen, analytical skills. analytical skills. Right.
So just to be clear, what you are putting on the screen, we are saving and will be part of our decision-making as we move forward with the work with the standards and our guidance that we’ll put out. So this is incredibly helpful. Right.
So a lot of competencies that are transferable to this type of work is what I’m seeing on the screen. I’m going to give it about ten more seconds. You want to submit your final vote? Excellent. Thank you so much.
Now we’re going to move on to the next question, which is same format, but we are now talking about what are the top three new competencies the professional accountants need to deliver quality sustainability-related reporting and assurance services. What’s new?
This is when we say what hasn’t changed? What’s new? This is the what’s new part? What do you think we need to add on to make sure we’re effective? Again, you could vote a second or third or fourth time and you might want to pick some of the words you’re seeing on the screen. So if you see a phrase there like I see critical thinking there, I might want to submit that one myself. Really important to this type of work.
Right, so some of the things I’m seeing there, collaboration and I mean collaboration, I believe, came up in the previous one as well. But I think that’s telling me that that needs to be enhanced, that we need to do more. Technical knowledge, specific knowledge, subject matter knowledge, all refers to the same thing that we need to learn more about some of the specific areas that come up within sustainability. Definitely that’s the kind of thing we need to add.
Empathy. I see empathy coming through there. That’s really interesting. And particularly as we go on this journey with our clients and they will still be learning. We’re all learning on this together.
I love that computer skills is there and we hear this coming up quite a lot around technology and how technology is going to enable us to do this effectively. We’re going to be obviously working with many different types of data, different to what we’re used to. Wonderful.
I’m going to give this 30 seconds and then I’m going to close this one off.
Imagination is interesting. I really hope that’s not because we want to imagine what to report. But that we’re perhaps being a bit creative in making sure that we’re doing this effectively and thinking also.
One of the things we hear a lot is around the challenge of completeness of the information that gets reported. It’s really being able to dig deep and think what is important in this work.
Okay, fantastic. So great list of words there. Great. All right you very much now we’re going to move on to a more practical question.
What do you think are the challenges for aspiring and professional accountants to obtain the competencies to perform quality sustainability reporting services? And for this one, it’s an open ended question. You can write, don’t write too long. Just short sharp will be great and will start appearing on the screen. And what I’m going to do is I’m going invite you to vote a few times to submit your responses a few times, and then I’m going to allow you to vote on what other people have said so we can see if we can elevate some of the the most important challenges that we should be thinking about.
But really, what is it going to take? What’s the blockages? What’s going to stop us from getting competency across the professional accounting community? Time and resources, big one. rights. Do people have the time to go back and study and learn and upskill themselves. The will to learn something new. Do people actually want to change? Do they want to take on a whole new area of work? Lack of time, lack of interest, lack of motivation, doubting as to how quickly the new frameworks will be applied? Absolutely. Absolutely. yeah.
Competition from non-accounting experts. And this is part of why it’s so really important that we do take seriously the areas where we have gaps in our knowledge. We are convinced that it’s easier for an auditor or an accountant to learn about sustainability than it is for a sustainability professional to learn about accounting or assurance. But that doesn’t mean we have nothing to learn.
No global consensus on what is “quality sustainability”. Absolutely. We haven’t hit that consistency yet. I’m not sure what certifications and sources to obtain sustainability competencies come into the question that was asked earlier.
All right. I’m going to give you an opportunity now to vote on these responses. Three, two, one. So now on your screen, you should see the option to vote on which ones you think are the biggest challenges. So just click through and you can click on which ones you want to vote for. You should have an unlimited number of votes, so don’t click all of them, but pick the ones that you think are most important.
Fantastic. You guys are a great audience. Seem to be a lot of interesting inputs and appreciate your perspective. So I am going to reveal what we’re seeing reveal what we’re seeing as rising to the top.
So time and resources, uncertainty, lack of knowledge base and no global consensus, really important. Reliable inputs, data sets. And this is part of what we need to work on together, right. To improve the quality and that lack of expert knowledge. Of course, money coming through a lot. So it is going to be hard and it is going to take an investment from all of us, both in terms of our time, in terms of our money. Organisations taking this seriously and going on this journey with their people.
So thank you so much for all those inputs. These are fantastic inputs. And as we go into a bit of discussion in a couple of moments’ time you might want to expand on something you said or elevate some of that. So when we get to Q&A, it’s not just Q&A, it’s Q, A and comments that we’d love to hear from you.
But I want to just share a final slide at this point. I think I’ve got two more I’ll do right at the end of the session, including some suggestions on what you can do to upskill yourself. But I wanted to give a couple reflections on building capacity and really when I think about this issue, when I think about what it’s going to take to build capacity of professional accountants across the world, in all markets, in all different sized organisations.
One of the things that really keeps coming to me is how holistically we need to think. And we’ve got to be building capacity everywhere. Preparers, assurance, our future professional accountants, who many of you do fantastic work in training and preparing for the market. Non-accounting experts. Even though we do believe accountants are well-placed, we know we’ve got to work with other experts. So how do we ensure that they know what we need, how we can work together effectively, what it takes to provide us with data that is of sufficient reliability that we can use it in disclosures? Regulators need to be on board. And all of you who are here today who identified as educators, the capacity of educators is going to be so important.
Of course, it’s always challenging to teach something you’ve never actually done yourself. And so making sure that we support the wider education community to upskill themselves and to be as connected as possible to business and to people who are doing this type of work on a day-to-day basis is going to be really important.
We need to integrate sustainability into university curricula, into professional curricula, into assessments. Ultimately, this should be the kind of thing that is part of what we are assessing our aspiring accountants on.
Practical experience. This is really hard at the moment, but as time goes on, we really want young people who are coming through the system to get exposed to during their training contract or articles, or whatever you call it in your country, that they get exposed to this type of work.
CPD offerings, obviously. But it may be that we need to go deeper than just a short CPD course and offer post-qualification specialisations.
Essentially, we need to integrate sustainability everywhere.
And then the last comment at the bottom is that we don’t see this as likely being some standalone course that solves everything. But if we think about initial professional development and the curriculums that many of you oversee and teach, we see sustainability-related reporting as having many, many touchpoints on the reporting side, on the auditing side, on the ethics side, governance, risk management, internal controls, professional skills, even tax in some countries it’s an important issue and in probably many other places.
And so some of the best advice I’ve been hearing at the moment from educators who’ve been thinking about this is to be asking, thinking about sustainability in every single case study that you currently have, every time you’re assessing is there a sustainability angle? You might be teaching about the IFRS principles applicable to property, plant and equipment, but surely there is a whole bunch of thoughts around sustainability in the way you use and maintain your assets and which assets you pick in the first place? And what does that mean?
And you can apply the same thinking across any discipline. In management accounting, uge need to ensure that we are considering sustainability in our decision making by management and the information we provide them. And I could go on and on. So I’m going to pause there. I’m going to stop.
Thanks, Bruce. That was really interesting. I’m sure there are questions. We’re just going to wait for people to sort of pop them in the chat or, if you would, if you’re happy to please just put your hand up and you can come and ask your question directly to Bruce.
I was promising him actually that he was going to be quite fiercely challenged by people because I know some of us feel that IFAC have been missing in action as far as education is concerned. And so I think that’s why, you know, this is such a welcome opportunity to have you here, Bruce. And thank you so much for making your time available to us and being so comprehensive in your discussion about the approach IFAC is taking.
Paul Jennings [Accounting Cafe]
Bruce, just while we’re waiting for people to get their questions together, there was one thing that came up in the chat a little while ago from Tim saying there’s research been done that suggests people prefer sustainability consultants to accountants because they are doubtful about accountants’ independence. What do you think of that? Is that in your experience?
Yeah. So, you know, I think we would say that, to be honest, often the problem has been in the other direction. We see a lot of examples of sustainability consultants who are doing the consulting work, then also doing the assurance work. And so at a very fundamental level, we would question that.
The IESBA, the Ethics Standards Board is looking at this issue and particularly around independent standards and how those would be applied to other professions. You know, that’s something to watch out for.
But we think it’s one of the big selling points of the profession that we actually do understand independence. What we are aware of, and we have some research from IFAC out that you can take a look, I’ll try and add those links in in a moment around we do research annually on the state of play of sustainability assurance and reporting.
And so we do see certain parts of the world where consultants are the sustainability professionals are doing the majority of the work, assurance type work on sustainability reporting. And that’s something we’re tracking and trying to understand and what that means for the profession. I guess what I would say very clearly is we know we need to work together. The solution is probably not one of us winning, but rather, you know, the profession bringing what we bring to the table and perhaps taking that lead, and especially from an independence, ethics, quality standpoint, but also recognising that we need to be working with experts and bring in the right people in at the right time.
Paul Thompson [EFAA]
If the profession is to be persuasive, we need to be seen to be authentic and practising what we preach. And that, I think, is part and parcel of the whole reputation and value proposition. You know, we can’t be peddling sustainability services to other people saying you should report on this and we can do that report for you unless we’re not doing it ourselves.
Yeah, absolutely. I’m so glad Paul highlighted the fact that we’re trying our best at IFAC and honestly, we get challenged every time we need to take a flight, and rightly so. You know, we do a lot of convening, bringing people from all around the world, so, in fact, our staff’s travel was probably just a small blip compared to the amount of emissions that happen when we bring people together.
And so it’s not to say that all needs to stop, but we do need to be thinking very carefully, making sure we get the best value out of those moments when we travel and come together. And certainly leading by example on this is really the way to go. I don’t think it’s helpful to be part of the problem.
And this speaks to the fact that it’s also not just about the reporting, but it’s about what it actually means. Why are we doing this reporting? It’s because we have a climate crisis. It’s because we have crazy inequality around the world, high rates of poverty, you know, so we must never lose sight of that in the reason behind it. Think about what it means for us and what we can do.
We are trying to do our best at IFAC around our own reporting on these issues. It’s a learning journey for us as an organisation. And, you know, we’re a small organisation without a huge amount of people to be able to be focused on this. But our CFO is taking it very seriously. Our board’s taking it seriously and, you know, we’ll continue to try to lead as best we can in that area.
Can I ask more generally, Bruce, about the education standards more generally and what the plans are and how those might be revised?
Yeah. So, thanks that’s, I mean, a really great question. So some of you who know the history would know that we used to have the International Accountancy Education Standards Board which set these standards and, you know, made sure that they were maintained and updated continuously. IFAC, for various reasons, chose to move to a new model for accountancy education, which kicked off in 2019, where we want to continue to support the education standards, but also do other work around supporting the global education community.
Whereas in the past, all we really did was the standards. We’re now able to do a lot of other work around convening, education directives, for example, around thought leadership, around tackling issues like attractiveness of the profession is one of the big ones for us at the moment, that we feel we need to be contributing to the dialogue in some way. So, our new approach allows us to do more.
But your questions about the future of the education standards, what we had, what happened earlier this year and has really enabled us to move forward with the standard setting is our IFAC board approved our new due process for standard setting for the education standards.
In the past, education standards, as I said, was done through an independent standards setting board. And because that’s gone away, we need a different oversight mechanism. So the IFAC board ultimately approves the standards and is responsible for overseeing the due process.
But it’s IFAC staff together with our International Panel on Accountancy Education who identifies the need for changes based on obviously the various engagements we have with stakeholders around the world and then initiates the project, establishes working groups to tackle particular issues. So right now this is our big one, but we also have a smaller project around updating IES 6 on Assessment just to bring it up to date with some of the more recent developments and how assessment has evolved over the past years.
So when, assuming there’s going to be a revision to the standards around sustainability, there will likely be an exposure draft coming out at the same time for both of those two projects. But the panel is required to continue to monitor the relevance of those standards and to identify where we need to explore possible revisions.
Vasyl Khokhla [The Bee Dance]
Oh, hi. So Gallup study showed that only 44% of the U.S. population trust accountants in a high level. So I’m curious about the thoughts if incorporating sustainability standards are going to change to increase that perception of trust. And then the second point is the U.S. just in the U.S. they just changed the CPA exam to make it more heavily geared towards technology.
But as far as sustainability, there is nothing there. So the question is if we can reasonably expect that in the future iteration and perhaps in five years or so, sustainability will be added to the CPA exam requirements.
Yeah. So I mean, great question. And I, I can’t say what’s going to happen in the US. We have representatives. Somebody on the staff at AICPA is on our education panel. So she provides inputs as appropriate and no doubt they’re thinking about it. I don’t have a clear sense of where their heads are at the moment in terms of integrating sustainability.
We are waiting to hear about what the SEC is going to put out around mandating sustainability reporting and that will, you know, perhaps force the profession to respond in some way, but difficult for me to opine on exactly what will happen in the US and say. It is obviously a big market and tends to function in the way it wants to, but these you know being a part of this standard setting, we hope, will to some degree influence back the direction they take to the point about the reputation of accountants.
So we do at IFAC, we have this other work and I mentioned it briefly earlier around attractiveness of the profession and the kind of brand of the profession and we do think this is, you know, it’s a critical time.
Many young people just have a wrong perception of the profession, whether it’s that it’s boring or doesn’t pay enough or it’s, you know, it doesn’t have a sense of purpose or perhaps even that it’s viewed as, you know, not being a trustworthy profession. So, there is work to change those perceptions.
That issue differs though from country to country. And so we’re looking to put out some thoughts on it from a global perspective and to encourage our members around the world to take action in areas that make sense in their own jurisdictions to make sure that we are lifting up the brand of the profession.
We do see sustainability as a great opportunity to attract young people in and to show that our work has meaning. But we also recognie that’s not all there is to it. So certainly it’s an ongoing challenge. I mean, is what I would say, but we’re aware of it, you know, trying to do what we can. It’s a little bit by little, but early days to be able to say exactly the direction we’re taking.
I believe there’s a huge need for accountancy education to be responsive in the way our education processes, you know, do they act as a barrier to people getting to the profession or are they there to develop young professionals, you know, to be competent, to be able to go out there and have meaningful careers? And I think sometimes we’re more gatekeepers than people developers and, you know, that’s not a criticism of anyone on the call today but a more general reflection on the systems we have. Yes.
So as far as the UK CA exam, are there any sections related to sustainability or the the added emphasis on sustainability?
Yeah. So there is change happening. Some people on the call may know more about this than me, but I know ICAEW has made changes to their curriculum that’s in place this year and there’s more coming for next year that’s integrating sustainability throughout and they’re taking a really broad approach to sustainability, you know, not just in terms of the reporting but in terms of broader sustainable development issues.
I know that ICAS is doing work on this. ACCA has a number of offerings and is integrating it across their curriculum as well. So there certainly is shifts. I don’t know how much that is filtering down into what some of the universities do, particularly where they provide credits, where they get credits towards those different qualifications. But there is movement.
And there are many countries doing a lot of good work. The UK is certainly, the professional bodies in the UK are amongst the leaders in tackling this at the moment, from the conversations I’ve been hearing. We’re learning a lot from the direction they’re taking.
The chat has gone a little quiet, although there are some very interesting comments in there. Interesting about Neil Dunne saying, yes, the representation of accountants is utterly misjudged within schools. And Karen saying one of her students says accountants are viewed as evil in her country. So, yes, Bruce, there’s work to be done there. Come on. Pull your finger out.
I wish we could fix that.
Muhammed has got a question, I think.
So what did you guys study or what was your background? Did you guys have a background in science or sustainability, or did you guys think we’re accountants or public accountants and then you guys like moved towards sustainability adding How can someone like me, what’s the first step for me?
I hope we’re not misrepresenting ourselves. I mean, I can’t speak for Paul, but I know nothing about sustainability and I’ve learned nothing and I was never examined on it or assessed on it. It hadn’t really been invented when I trained to be an accountant.
I would point to something really specific. Tim de Trafford in the chat said that he has taken the ACCA’s Sustainability in Finance certificate and he thought that was very detailed and worthwhile. So that might be a practical step you can take.
I think you’re doing a great job as well in sort of picking up articles through LinkedIn and so on. There’s an awful lot you can do just by reading what’s already out there. You don’t need to go and spend an awful lot of money on this stuff.
I’ll come back to you, Bruce. But firstly, can I ask Susan to speak?
Suan Smith [UCL]
Yeah. When I guess at the point when we started having these conversations about sustainability, and the Sustainable Development Goals, I started to think, hang on, how am I ever going to be able to teach students until I know anything about this myself? So, much as others have done, I spent time reading, looking at the literature, following news feeds as they come out, and I did both the ACCA certificate as well as the ICAEW one.
I think the ICAEW one is slightly more up to date only because it’s a newer certificate and the ACCA one may have been revised since I did it.
In some respects we need to be authentic with our students about that as well, not profess to be the expert because that could lead us into some very awkward areas. Yeah, that would be my feeling anyway.
Yeah. Susan, I heard the term “competency washing” at one point where somebody does their little four-hour certificate with somebody and then claims to be an expert on this and that’s not helpful. I think we’ve got to be honest about who we are and what we know. And you know. Yes, continue to learn and develop. But certainly. Thank you for sharing that perspective. So, you know, that’s a really important part of it.
I do want to share a few thoughts around actual actions. I’ve got a slide that actually gives some suggestions on what you can do, but before I get to that, I see Karen. Is it Kăren or Kāren? I’ m not sure.
Karen Aldridge [University of Law]
One of the many Karens who are on this call.
But anyway, yeah, when just on the back of what Susan was saying about, you know, not professing to be an expert in the classroom, and I think as ever, as educators in the university sector, I think we learn from our students too. And it can be a co-learning experience because they, you know, a lot of them are very interested, too. I don’t know.
I’ve got some in my classes who come into accountancy because they want to earn lots of money and they think it’s all about money. But actually, once you start to talk to them about these issues, they become interested in them and start investigating and researching themselves. So I think it can be a really exciting joint venture to be learning about it.
Yeah. Absolutely. And I remember somebody telling me just after they had qualified or somebody in the firm I was at. We were doing manager training and they started going around the room, ask you what your biggest achievement was, and this person said his biggest achievement was his BMW, which he had got after he qualified. I mean, that doesn’t help our profession, right?
And when we’re thinking of this type of work, we actually need more of those people who say, no, actually, I view my job as needing to make a difference in the world. And so we know, yes, a lot of the younger generation expect that to be part, but also they expect to still be paid okay, even if they’re making a difference. So kind of getting those two together is really, really important.
Bruce, just before we move on to the last section and do the final actions, would you mind if I just invited Susan Smith to mention something because she’s also doing some work, but it segues very nicely with what we’re doing but actually poses the question to the students directly. And she has a . . . Susan, you talk about it. I don’t need to talk for you.
Okay. So many of you in this group will be aware or have heard of or heard that a number of us have got together as a grassroots group to try to rethink the accounting curriculum, to ensure that it embeds the moral aspects, the ethical aspects and the sustainability throughout the learning.
So we had a workshop in September. A number of people came along to that and following that we co-created a draft introduction to accounting course, and I can send anyone who’s interested the links.
So you can contribute as well. It’s not a closed group. This is a very open, collaborative group. But as part of that, one of the things we’ve asked colleagues to do is to share a Menti with their students, which asks them what they think the most pressing problems for accountants to address are. So what we’d like to do is to create an open access resource for educators to use with a lot of additional educator specific information like teaching cases, question banks, links to current news stories, all of that type of thing. But this is still the early phases. So I’m going to see if I can share the Menti.
CHAT — Toby York: Student link https://www.menti.com/al8vi931d2g5/0
You can access the cumulative result (of all students who have voted to date) to show in class after your students have voted using the instructor link https://www.mentimeter.com/app/presentation/alpfy7cs5zdbo4fbnw8oo24co5ndtoo8
But you can see even with students, obviously, because they don’t see this until afterwards. So it doesn’t colour their inputs that sustainability is there quite prominently.
We’ve got the ethics aspects in terms of tax evasion in different forms, corruption, money laundering, all of those. Those sorts of themes are coming through.
So if you’re interested, I’ll pop my details into the chat. If you drop me an email, I can share all the links with you. As I said, this is something that we’re trying to make as collaborative as possible and everybody is welcome to join in.
Lovely. Thank you, Susan. I’ve just put the Menti links in the chat, but if you’re happy to put your email in the chat, please do that.
Yeah, well I mean that is so fantastic. And I suppose just before I go into my last two slides, one of my real kind of call to action, I suppose for the education community on the call today is that we don’t need to walk this journey alone. And as individual educators, there’s no expectation that we develop a thousand different learning sets of learning resources and case studies like let’s find a way to collaborate, learn from each other and work together.
And I think Accounting Cafe is a great platform to potentially enable that. But, you know, thinking globally, we know that even once we put out education revisions to education standards, if we do, the hard part is going to be actually developing those really interesting case studies and content that we can and then empowering all educators around the world to be able to teach that.
I know some people will make money out of this and that’s fine the markets are good and we’ll help with that. But I also view this as actually something that we need to be doing in the public interest and supporting one another. So, you know, wherever that’s possible, if you come across, you know, a great case study, you know, and you’re able to share it with your peers, do that, you know, let’s find ways to make that happen. Whether that be through the Accounting Cafe community or through other networks that you’re involved with.
I think that’s just going to be a really important part of building that capacity amongst educators.
I’m going to share just two final slides. This is a quick slide that has some ideas about what you can do to upskill yourself today. So of course there are lots of courses.
I have shared a link in the chat to a page that we have where we just bring you together various courses that you can do to upskill yourself. So please check out that, which has courses.
But there’s some very basic things. Reading the standards, in the global context: IFRS S1 and S2. Just actually pick them up and read them. As accountants, they’re familiar. They’re not unusual. You know how to read standards so please take a look at that.
Please do take a look at ISSA 5000. It is long, but it has some core principles that are flowing through there. So there’s an exposure draft out for that at the moment. You know, you can read the covering memo and you’ll find there’s about, I think there’s about eight focus areas that they had that they’ve placed a lot of emphasis on dealing with areas of particular importance that people struggle with when doing sustainability assurance. So you can focus your time on those areas. So if you read the cover notes that’s, you know, the way to at least manage what’s a really big document. And please, you know, submit comment letters as well on that exposure draft.
COSO has put out some guidance around what to do from an internal control perspective. So another great document to read and then really just the most simple one read publicly available sustainability reports.
Think of your favourite publicly traded company and see if they’ve got a sustainability report that you can read. Of course, there’s some global leaders on it. And you know, I’m not going to tell you who to look at that. That might be dangerous since this is recorded, but you know, but there’s lots of great examples out there of companies that are leading on this work. So take a look. And some who aren’t, who are greenwashing, you know, and maybe you want to read some of those as well to start understanding how the quality differs.
And then ISSB is going to be publishing an online course that will be freely available to everyone. That should be later this year. So please look out for that. We’ll be promoting it widely on our on our platforms. Really important piece of work.
Final call to action. And I’m going to ask Toby if you can just copy that final link. It’s in the chat that I shared with you. If you want to go into a bit more detail on contributing your thoughts, we have a survey which is live and up until October 25th. Please do consider submitting a detailed response to that as a lot of the questions are the same as the ones asked today, but some go a little bit further, so that is available there and the link will be in the chat. Otherwise you can just go to IFAC.org and you will find it. It’s one of the things we’re promoting on the front page at the moment, and that’s another way to participate in this project.
Thank you so much everyone from my side. It’s been an amazing opportunity to listen to you, to learn from you, and to get your perspectives. I hope you’ve taken a few things away from the discussion as well, and huge thanks to Toby and the team for allowing me to be a part of this community.
Oh Bruce, it’s been a real pleasure having you, and a really very interesting and helpful discussion. And I hope, the start of a longer dialogue that we might carry on with you. I’ve enjoyed it very much and I hope everybody else has too.
Please stay in touch with us if you want to know about other events and stuff that’s going on. There’s a signup form there that’s also got information about our next face-to-face meeting.
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Resources and files
Presentation slides (646 KB PDF)
Links from the conversation
IFAC — Accountancy Education (IES) eTool (Accessed 6 October 2023)
IFAC — Shaping the Future of Accountancy Education: Call for Sustainability Insights (Accessed 6 October 2023)
IFAC — The State of Play: Sustainability Disclosure & Assurance 2019-2021, Trends & Analysis (Accessed 6 October 2023)
IFAC — Remaining Relevant: Opportunities to Expand Your Sustainability Know-How (Accessed 6 October 2023)
Links from the chat
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