By Alice Deaken
Even before the pandemic, the pace of change in business had become exponential. An unsettled global order, digitalisation, with its attendant “move fast and break things” culture of disruption, and the looming opportunities (and challenges) of AI were adding up to a lot of question marks where previously there were answers.
As a result, the ways we educate future accountants must adapt both in terms of what and how we teach, says Alice Deakin CA, ICAS Executive Director of Learning. “We have to prepare students to respond to the issues clients encounter, and it’s the pace of change that they will have to increasingly recognise and cater for,” she explains. “We still need to train all our accountants in core fundamental principles, but students need to be able to understand things in the context of a changing landscape. When I trained many years ago, there was a right and wrong answer in almost every accountancy topic. Being able to think strategically and recognise that it’s not always black or white, that sometimes it’s grey, is increasingly crucial to the roles our students will find themselves in.”
Exponential change in business requires ICAS to continually update the CA qualification. “The subjects keep evolving,” explains Deakin. “We review our syllabus every year, and we’ve just added new content around the key themes of Technology, Trust and Talent, including more learning of strategic and financial modelling, business acumen, ethics, data and risk. At the middle level, Test of Professional Skills, we have a new subject, Risk and Technology. It’ll be 100% online and students will submit a series of assessments rather than sit one single exam.”
Educational establishments can no longer afford to indulge in the slower pace of change of past decades. “We also can’t operate in an accountancy bubble,” says Deakin. “We’ve got to keep an eye on the external environment to make sure our qualification still tees up accountants to be future-ready and to take advantage of new education methodologies and technologies. We increasingly interact with ICAS members in organisations across practice or industry, with clients, students and international bodies, so collectively we’re looking at a global perspective of how accountancy will change and how we need to cater for that. We need to look upwards and outwards.”
And what about longer-term trends in content? “Risk, technology and cybersecurity will continue to be more prevalent, as will ESG,” says Deakin. “There will be more emphasis on ‘soft’ skills. Behavioural science elements of, for example, ethics and governance are increasingly important. We need to teach technical abilities and skills, but also the behaviours people will need to do their jobs in the future.”
The other seismic shift is in delivery. The world’s had a crash course in remote learning. “We already taught some subjects online, but the pace of change has dramatically accelerated,” says Deakin. “We’ve had to teach everything online live and run remote assessments. Each time we ask ourselves, ‘What worked and what didn’t? Let’s run them again and do better.’ It has instilled in us an agile approach and a willingness to try, learn and improve.”
Now that we better understand the potential of online education, will a return to “normal” be on the cards? “People have definitely got more used to remote learning during Covid, but fatigue may creep in,” says Deakin. “Although the technology will improve – dramatically so – there’s still a hankering for elements of our old life. Medium to long term, it will be about blended learning that takes advantage of that technology but keeps the best parts of face-to-face.”
She says blended learning could enhance, rather than undermine, the consistency of learning between students: “We don’t believe one size fits all. A student overseas may need more online access than one sitting in Edinburgh or London. There are classes where we’re imparting information, but students actually could go away and self-study, then come to an online or face-to-face class and discuss the implications. I expect more of that flexibility.”
The digital revolution has also created a situation where students have to navigate an ever-vaster information landscape. “Across learning generally, there is more content available – that makes it important for the learner to discern what’s right for them,” says Deakin. “What I’d really like to see – and think will happen – is a greater combination of technical and human skills, and the continuous learning journey extend beyond qualification. I wonder if this unusual period of time will have increased people’s appetite for professional development.”
That seems probable. Crises often tend to make the winds of change blow even harder, and education is unlikely to be left behind.
To find out more about ICAS’ new student proposition, visit icas.com/students/studying-with-icas/the-icas-ca-student-value-proposition
This article was first published in CA magazine: https://www.camagazine.co.uk/january2021#!learning-curve