The Covid-19 pandemic has impacted all areas of our lives including importantly our education systems.
This article discusses the impact of Covid-19 on assessment, skills development and careers within the context of accounting and finance. It starts by considering whether there is an anticipated change in the need for accounting and finance professionals and then discusses the impact on skills requirements due to Covid-19 and whether universities are best place to provide the knowledge and skills required. It goes on to look at the adaptation to courses and assessment in response to Covid-19 and adaptations by employers to employee training. Finally, it considers whether short term policy changes to assessment made to address Covid-19 impacts can be expected to develop into longer term policy decisions.
Economic impact of Covid-19 and the need for accounting and finance professionals
History shows that whenever there has been a significant event, the need for accountants grows. Accountants are needed to help growth, making appropriate financial decisions following recession. They are needed to manage tax implications of support, manage and forecast cash flows, produce revised and relevant business plans, manage supply chain and manage assets. Managing short and long terms cash strategies will be critical for survival of many companies and the accountant is well placed to lead. For accountants there may be more work needed working with banks to support clients including getting access to loans and subsidies for the client. They play a key role in assessing the financial implications of restructuring, merger opportunities and help innovate during these difficult times, for example helping change business processes to support the Covid effort such as businesses producing beauty products, now producing hand sanitiser. Regrettably they are also needed to help in closing-down businesses.
It is likely that many changes will arise to financial reporting standards, for example revenue recognition to deal with subsidies and furlough pay and the qualified accountant will be needed to navigate these changes and ensure the company remains compliant. Professional body accountants help shape amendments to accounting standards so as to better help businesses operationally produce accountants and create clarity and consistency, examples include leasing standard amendments to clarify whether rent holidays are lease modifications and a delay in the implementation of the current and non-current liabilities changes which if this had not happened may have triggered a number of loan covenant breaches purely due to accounting.
Meanwhile, professional judgement may have to be applied to best manage such transactions within the context of the standards as they are. Thus, more accountants at a more strategic or senior level could be needed. There may also be a need for non-standard financial statement audit reports including subsequent events, accounting estimates, going concern and emphasis of matters. The role of audit is important as their role is to better aid trust and confidence in business, especially important when the owners and managers are different people, and this will provide consumer confidence and support spending. Many small and medium enterprises (SME’s) have been reliant on using cloud accounting and analytic systems, which are good during the good times but when there is uncertainty the value comes from accountants who can use this information to advise, hence added value skills.
Covid-19 has caused a rapid shift in the economy to online businesses, with Amazon and Zoom booming, and a move away from other business areas such as airline and the motor industry. It is likely that accountants in certain industries will lose their jobs, requiring the accountants seeking roles to differentiate themselves.
In the short term not, all jobs offered to students may be honoured, or they may be starting late, which, means students will be receiving less money than they had expected.
Overall it is considered accountants will still be needed but whether it will be more accountants is debateable. It is certain however that accountants will need different skills with greater focus on the issues mentions above.
Skills students require to be able to work effectively in a post Covid-19 world
With the expected impact on the job market students will need to develop skills which differentiate them in the marketplace. New skills development and enhancement of skills including digital is anticipated including the application of these skills in practice such as the application of machine learning, robotics, cyber security and data analytics. Students need to develop enhanced digital communication skills due to working from home and the ability to analyse risk and control due to enhanced fraud and cyber risk with increased online start-ups. Such IT skills are highly relevant in developing nations where many accountants have the theoretical skills but need further IT skills to complement, as Covid-19 is forcing companies to accelerate their digitalisation programmes. For these nations, the IT skills may be as simple as efficient use of excel/office 365; accounting software packages to manage accounts and or forecasting.
Other skills include critical and agile decision making, with decision making being more iterative and constantly evolving as new information comes to light for example changing government support and responses will impact business on a daily basis. To implement change, accountants will be needed to design end to end controls, placing an emphasis on internal audit, and project management support to implement digital change. Accountants now more than ever must refine their skills to ensure that they can contribute positively to the challenges identified.
The speed of change highlighted through the acceleration of digitalisation programmes, raises the profile of a complementary digital skill set such as adaptability and agility. Empathy in a digital environment will be vital, as we move more into an online world especially if some form of social distancing remains the norm. Digital presence is part of these complementary digital environment skills – managing oneself on camera during meetings, for example, as well as recognizing the need to stay 'safe' online and understanding cyber security. Excellent listening skills are needed too to absorb the right information and respond accordingly.
Self-management is another skill that is essential in remote working and takes on different nuances including time management, discipline, focus, emotional intelligence. Many new intake students will not be able to come into an office environment for some time, requiring them to gain these skills as well as adapt to a new workplace. 'Environmental' skills are needed in managing at home where it may be less quiet, children at home etc. Managing and motivating remote teams is another new skill that is essential, including the building of rapport.
In terms of technical skills, further change may be needed to work remotely from a technical perspective; how can you audit, for example? Changes to IT will be needed here too. The accountant needs good data science and IT competence, but they do not always have expertise in these areas so they will need to work collaboratively with data science and IT experts.
More sustainable practises are also likely to need to be considered to maintain change. Thus, accountants will need to be able to add value in this area too. Financial reporting practises are also likely to change as a result of the changes in the environment and this will need to be a part of the financial reporting process with potentially greater accountability in this area going forward.
Accountants will need to be able to assess and respond to ever evolving risk. Analytical skills remain as essential skills and this is not just the ability to use software but the application of professional skepticism in analysis.
In summary, as well as IT and analysis skills, soft skills need further development to manage meetings online including the need to communicate clearly and concisely (3Cs). Technical skills are also evolving. Thus, this is all about having the right mindset to learn how to learn and to have the ability to adjust and maintain organisational resilience as well as having an important role to play in risk assessment and mitigation.
Universities and the development of skills and knowledge for accounting education
The next area of consideration is whether universities will still be well placed to offer the skills and knowledge required for accounting education. Qualifications may become more important to differentiate people in the job market thereby encouraging students to study more and possibly increasing motivation. In the short term there may be fewer roles but as companies recover roles will emerge and these will require roles more strategic and professional skills will be needed.
Many universities are moving towards online/virtual tuition, but the rapid change may mean they are not necessarily doing this well, for example a one-hour video of a lecturer simply 'talking at' a student is not ideal. Similarly, placing material online and leaving it for students to work through doesn’t work well, but it is where many universities will start. Teaching online requires much more preparation than it does for a Face to Face (F2F) class, with more detailed planning of how to keep the class engaged and may include sending notes in advance so that class time online can be used to engage better with content. If online learning is not done well, it will affect how skills are developed.
Going online does not typically save money, despite the common perception that it does. Using simulation is very expensive, but it is a great tool for successful teaching if F2F is not possible. Whilst expensive, online is more scalable and economies of scale may be relevant. Professional body working relationships, such as ACCA with universities, will be even more important to ensure rigour and standards are met and to support universities to find solutions for those students that want that a university experience.
The validity of a traditional accounting degree is questioned to an extent. More practical courses that focus well on professional skills and include practical experience ('sandwich' courses) or simulation will be more valuable as will having working professionals alongside academics to enhance the learning experience.
The issue of online assessment and knowing who has done the submitted work is a real challenge and may lead the credibility of the degree to be questioned and if it continues which will detract from university offerings.
Regardless of F2F or online, students need access to IT for accounting degrees to be relevant. If they cannot attend classes for example due to Covid-19 then the challenge in some developing countries is ensuring students have laptops and have the connectivity to use them. It is known that accountants need those skills but training them to have this is a huge challenge and even when F2F is possible, there are many universities particularly in developing countries that do not have the right access to IT.
Many of the skills identified above, including business awareness, critical thinking and adaptation skills become more challenging when the students cannot interact with people and can have virtual visits only to different workplaces, they may have been able to visit in the past. Universities need good mentors for students to guide them through these challenges, however there is also the opportunity for students to mentor older employees to help with technology for example.
Adaptations to courses and assessment in respond to the impact of Covid-19
Universities are adapting modules quickly to deliver courses online. Many are working well but there is potential for challenge if not done well. Students in UK (and many other countries) pay high fees and expect F2F tuition. If the online experience is poor, they may challenge the fees (even though online delivery is not cheaper). Thus, the onus is to create good courses, learning as we go. It is important that appropriate pedagogy is used, so if moving to online teaching that an online pedagogy is used.
In all online courses, monitoring 'engagement' when you cannot see students and their reactions, such as 'puzzlement' is a challenge. It makes it hard to pick up when students are not with you and classes may run at the tutor’s pace rather than the students’ pace. There is excellent software that can track students and what they are doing, but not everyone has access to these tools. Good class management can lead to better engagement.
Covid-19 has highlighted issues around equality, inclusion and diversity and the potential for widening inequalities. Although synchronous learning is viewed more positively by many people than asynchronous, synchronous learning may be less inclusive than asynchronous. This is because it is challenging to mandate when exactly to be available and it does not recognise that people are having to work at different times of day to fit around their household commitments.
On a positive note, asynchronous learning can be very helpful to students allowing them to work at their own pace. For students with dyslexia or hearing difficulties, this can be especially helpful. Thus, if infrastructure permits a form of blended learning may be the best way forwards longer term. It was also noted that asynchronous learning is generally cheaper than synchronous learning.
Students are generally receptive to online courses currently as it is that or nothing however current feedback is not reliable as a predictor for the future if the world returns to normal.
Remote assessment is likely to become essential to manage in post-COVID world. How to do this effectively, with integrity, remains a challenge. In some places, remote exams have been run already but it is not always easy to manage. This requires much support for students and is not necessarily a sustainable solution. The structure of modules may include small chunks of learning as it is harder to stay engaged in the digital environment, especially those that are asynchronous.
Employer adaptation of education and training of trainees
Employers are also moving their Learning and Development programmes online, however as with education institutions the design is not always well thought through. For example, where CPD courses were normally delivered as a daylong F2F courses, some companies still want that format in the digital world. This is less effective than shorter bursts and poor digital pedagogy. However, simply converting to Zoom (or similar) is the easiest way to move quickly which is why it is sometimes done.
One-week inductions are even more challenging. They can be turned into a mixture of bite-sized learning for self-study, as well as using Zoom or MS Teams for new people starting jobs. In large organisations, the challenge is further compounded by not having a standard technology infrastructure globally – for example, Zoom not available in all countries. Bigger firms are moving more easily to remote delivery than smaller firms for learning and development and for inductions. As time goes on, there may be some possibility of students being able to work in small groups away from the office with social distancing in place.
When delivering online, it is useful to consider changing presenters every 20 minutes or so, making use of chat boxes and polling. Thoughts are there should be nothing longer than four hours online in a day, even when broken into smaller chunks. The ability to monitor learning is also very important to allocate CPD points or ensure the right learning has been covered to be able to do the work.
Short term policy changes on assessment and the development into longer term policy decisions
There is a challenge over how to properly manage diversity and equality in the online world to ensure that short term policy changes are not to the long-term detriment of accessibility. Many students do not have the required hardware or internet access. Even if they do, quiet space to do assessment remotely is a challenge.
It is more challenging to introduce changes in developing countries with the suggestion that the divide between developing and developed countries is widening again as the need for access to good IT and good connectivity even at home (for schooling as well as college) become more important than ever.
Since much has been learned while implementing the short term, it is possible that many of the changes we are experiencing may be adapted for the medium to long term and then reviewed as time passes. To overcome challenges such as becoming too remote in future, blended learning may be a great and effective way forwards towards a new 'norm' offering the best of both worlds.
There are also cultural issues to overcome such as battling trust and integrity, when work is not invigilated. However, remote proctoring/invigilation is likely to grow in popularity and confidence in the rigour attached will probably grow with use, so it becomes an accepted norm.
All in all, it is expected that many universities and many businesses may continue with online/virtual practises to manage larger numbers and changing expectations.
Covid-19 is impacting on assessment, skills and careers within accounting and finance. It is anticipated that there will be changing skills requirements of accountants but that the need for accountants will remain to support the financial business and reporting impacts. There is rapid movement to online learning and assessment bringing with it the need to have a complementary set of digital skills that differ from the traditional skill set. Development of these skills needs to be provided through informed pedagogy that reflects whether in an online or a face to face environment that maintains trust and integrity in the education system whilst still enabling inclusivity and diversity in a post Covid world.
This article was drawn from insights from ACCA’s Education Global Forum. ACCA is committed to delivering professional accountants that the world needs. Key to achieving this is understanding the factors that affect the content, delivery and assessment of training and education, and how best this can be supported. This approach will ensure learners are able to develop a sound base of knowledge and skills that will support them throughout their accounting career and lifelong learning. The members of the Education Global Forum use their expertise to:
- Advise ACCA on relevant educational matters
- Consider the future of educational delivery and assessment for the next generation of learners
- Look at ways to share best practice in educational delivery and assessment and contribute to shaping the future of the qualification
- Look at innovative delivery and assessment models and ways in which to support learners globally, reflecting the changes in the world of education and work
- Debate how to effectively ensure a lifelong learning approach to educational delivery
- Contribute to debates on CPD and its application in supporting professional accountants, and
- Contribute to the relevant work of ACCA on above matters.
The following members contributed to this article and ACCA would like to thank them for their ongoing support and insights
- Chair, Professor Kenneth Henry, Florida International University
- Professor A J Kreimer, Temple University, US
- Professor Alan Parkinson, UCL, UK
- Clare Minchington, consultant UK
- Catherine Edwards, ACCA
- Professor Dan Herbert, Birmingham University
- Dave O’Donoghue, Director of Accountancy School Ireland
- Professor George Baah, Quinnipiac University, US
- Dr Gladys Bunyasi, KCA University, Kenya
- Dr James McFie, Strathmore University, Kenya
- Dr Jane Towers-Clark, ACCA
- Dr Kate Ringham, Oxford Brookes University, UK
- Professor Kim Watty, Deakin University
- Professor Mary Bishop, consultant, UK
- Dr Namasiku Liandu, Capella University, Bahrain
- Parminder Johal, University of Derby
- Professor Poh Sun Seow, Singapore Management University
- Rania Uwaydah Mardii, Olayan School of Business- American University of Beirut
- Professor Recep Pekdemir, Istanbul University
- Sharon Machado, ACCA UK (as forum member)
- Stuart Pedley-Smith, Kaplan, UK
- Tracey Oldnall, Deloitte UK