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Keywords:

  • Education of accountants;
  • Key attributes and skills;
  • Student perceptions;
  • Employer expectations;
  • Gaps
  • 121;
  • J24;
  • M41

Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. 1. Introduction
  4. 2. Literature review and development of research questions
  5. 3. Methodology
  6. 4. Results and discussion
  7. 5. Limitations
  8. 6. Conclusion
  9. References

For some years there has been much debate between various stakeholders about the need for accounting graduates to develop a broader set of skills to be able to pursue a career in the accounting profession. This study uses mixed methods to examine perceptions and expectations of two major stakeholders: students and employers. Findings indicate that students are becoming aware of employers’ expectations in terms of communication, analytical, professional and teamwork skills. Although employers are still expecting a good understanding of basic accounting skills and strong analytical skills, they are also requiring ‘business awareness’ and knowledge in terms of the ‘real world’. Both students and employers report that many of the ‘essential’ non-technical and professional skills and attributes are not being developed sufficiently in university accounting programmes.


1. Introduction

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. 1. Introduction
  4. 2. Literature review and development of research questions
  5. 3. Methodology
  6. 4. Results and discussion
  7. 5. Limitations
  8. 6. Conclusion
  9. References

The accounting profession worldwide has come under close scrutiny in the last decade as a result of a series of high-profile corporate failures, changing technology and globalization of the world economy. These change drivers have reduced the cost of information and increased the level of competition among organizations. This has resulted in a need for quicker and more decisive action by management, an emergence of new companies or industries and a requirement for new professional services and skills (Albrecht and Sack, 2000).

As a result, employers are seeking a diverse range of skills and attributes in new accounting graduates to maintain a competitive advantage despite the fact that many countries are facing a skills shortage in the area (Birrell, 2006). Recently, the training and education of accountants worldwide has been the subject of much debate and political struggle (Van Wyhe, 1994; Mohamed and Lashine, 2003). While capitalizing on traditional strengths, such as independence and concern for public interest, expectations of performance placed on accounting graduates are complex and demanding, requiring them to develop broader skills and be committed to continuing professional development and lifelong learning (Cooper, 2002; Howieson, 2003).

A university education should lay the foundations for a lifelong commitment by graduates to learning and professional development (West, 1998). Claims that university students are ill-equipped to begin professional practice and that universities should prepare their students with a more comprehensive range of skills occupy the media almost every week, causing a great deal of debate (Albin and Crockett, 1991; Hall, 1998; Mathews, 2000). Universities have responded by developing and articulating coherent policies and frameworks to build graduate attributes within and across programmes (Tempone and Martin, 2003). The accounting professional bodies in Australia have also recognized the critical importance of the development of generic skills and attributes for accounting graduates. Based on the work of Birkett (1993), professional bodies have produced Accreditation Guidelines for Universities making explicit their expectations of the generic (cognitive and behavioural) skill level of graduates. Graduate attributes being developed during accounting programmes should now go well beyond disciplinary or technical knowledge and expertise and include qualities that prepare graduates as lifelong learners, as ‘global citizens’, as agents for social good, and for personal development in light of an unknown future (Bowden and Marton, 1998; Barrie, 2004).

Research has attempted to differentiate between the broader generic skills as opposed to the context-specific, technical and practical skills (Ashbaugh and Johnstone, 2000; Crebert, 2002) and the meaning of an attribute or skill as defined in an educational context and an accounting employment context (Holmes, 2001). Many writers internationally suggest that the gap between education and practice is widening requiring curriculum change (Bowden and Masters, 1993; Crebbin, 1997; Wiggin, 1997; Yap, 1997; Albrecht and Sack, 2000). In Spain and the UK, the higher education systems are being revised to improve the quality of education and to reduce the expectations gap relating to employer demands (Hassall et al., 2005). In summary, accounting educators worldwide are being urged to alter curriculum to produce accounting graduates with a broader set of skills and attributes encompassing more than purely technical accounting expertise (Braun, 2004).

Although the requirements of professional bodies have been highlighted (CPA Australia and the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Australia, 2005; International Federation of Accountants (IFAC), 2006) and several studies examine the views of employers and practitioners in terms of the skills and attributes they require in entry-level graduates (Daggett and Liu, 1997; ACNeilsen, 2000; Lee and Blaszczynski, 1999; Hassal et al., 2005), there are few studies (Athiyaman, 2001) that acknowledge the views that students about to enter employment might have, despite the fact that they are key stakeholders in the whole process. The question is: what skills and attributes are perceived to be required of graduates by students and employers in today's business environment?

The present study examines perceptions of graduating students about the skills and attributes they consider important to their career, and the emphasis placed on the development of these skills during their degree programme. The present study also examines the skills and attributes expected by a diverse group of employers and explores gaps between student perceptions and employer expectations.

2. Literature review and development of research questions

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. 1. Introduction
  4. 2. Literature review and development of research questions
  5. 3. Methodology
  6. 4. Results and discussion
  7. 5. Limitations
  8. 6. Conclusion
  9. References

Throughout the past decade the skills agenda has been widely debated (Holmes, 2002). Many studies have cast a broad net in terms of the stakeholder groups, but examined generic skills not necessarily specific for accounting graduates or the accounting profession (ACNielsen Research Services, 2000; Bennett et al., 2000; Crebert, 2002; Leggett et al., 2004). Within the profession, competitive pressures and technology have led to expectations that accounting graduates demonstrate additional competencies with increasing importance given to non-accounting capabilities and skills. These capabilities and skills are important because they ‘enable the professional accountant to make successful use of the knowledge gained through education’ (IFAC, 1996, p. 16). Several researchers have indicated that although technical skills are still regarded as implicit in the skills base of a person entering an accounting career, accounting and business students must develop more than technical skills to succeed (Deppe et al., 1991; Aikin et al., 1994; Watty et al., 1998), and it is ‘personal characteristics’ that enable career success (Mathews et al., 1990; Agyemang and Unerman, 1998; DeLange et al., 2006).

Elliott and Jacobson (2002) suggest that accountants need education in complementary bodies of knowledge, such as organizational behaviour, issues in strategic management, measurement and analytical skills, while Mathews (2004) suggests an interdisciplinary curriculum at university. Others argue that university educators of future professional accountants should be committed to developing the relevant attributes identified as desirable for the professional practice of accounting (American Accounting Association, 1986; Accounting Education Change Commission, 1990; IFAC, 2006). Howieson (2003) sees the focus of the future accounting professional being the management of knowledge and adapting the education of accounting professionals to capitalize on that.

These views are supported by de la Harpe et al. (1999), who advocate integrating professional skills across disciplines. Whether it is better to develop these skills within the classroom or within the context of coming to know the discipline (Laurillard, 1984; Boud and Feletti, 1991) is the focus of much debate.

Globally, professional reports express concern that accounting education over-emphasizes the technical abilities of graduates to the detriment of other competencies, and suggest the need for alternative instructional strategies, such as case-based methods, seminars, role-plays, and simulations to engage students in the learning process and develop skills such as creative and critical thinking (American Accounting Association, 1986; Accounting Education Change Commission, 1990; IFAC, 1996; Adler and Milne, 1997). Many researchers have recommended abandoning a wholly procedural (technical) approach to financial accounting (Zeff, 1989; Needles and Powers, 1990; Bonk and Smith, 1998; Albrecht and Sack, 2000; Herring and Williams, 2000). Hunton (2002) argues that many traditional accounting tasks can be reliably automated, supporting claims that an accountant's worth is now increasingly reflected in higher-order skills, such as critical-thinking, problem-solving and analytical skills.

In contrast, some feel that it is unrealistic for universities to attempt to guarantee that graduates will possess the necessary generic skills to meet the demands of employers especially across a range of disciplines (Clanchy and Ballard, 1995; Cranmer, 2006). However, Albrecht and Sack (2000, p. 55) stress the importance of skill development during accounting programmes and state that: ‘Students forget what they memorize. Content knowledge becomes dated and is often not transferable across different types of jobs. On the other hand critical skills rarely become obsolete and are usually transferable across assignments and careers’.

Gabric and McFadden (2000) investigate students’ perceptions of the expected marketable skill base, finding that students agree that developing ‘personal transferable skills’, such as communication and time management, that can be used in a ‘. . . wide variety of career-related situations’ is not only important for making them more employable but is also a ‘. . . fundamental part of achieving . . . a good education’ (Haigh and Kilmartin, 1999, pp. 1, 203). As far as future career prospects were concerned, students rated developing teamwork and public presentation skills as the most important learning outcomes of the course and emphasized the development of skills to equip graduates for learning, work and life. This view is supported by Candy et al. (1994) and developed further by Jones and Sin (2003), who emphasize that students must be prepared to be lifelong learners with a focus on developing attributes and skills over a lifetime of professional, social and cultural experience. The focus must not be on the development of specific skills, but rather the ability to develop, change, and renew skills and knowledge throughout life (Crebbin, 1997).

Although universities have responded to the challenge of the ‘skills agenda’ in a variety of ways, Athiyaman (2001) finds that students felt that universities were still not delivering in terms of the development of those skills and attributes they considered important to their careers. This led to the development of the following research questions:

  • RQ1: What professional skills do graduating accounting students perceive as having the highest priority for career success?

  • RQ2: To what extent do graduating accounting students perceive that these professional skills have been developed as part of their degree programmes?

In general, the professionally sponsored educational change literature has recommended the broadening of the accounting curriculum to include those competencies reported by Albrecht and Sack (2000); namely, analytical/critical thinking, written communications, oral communications, computing technology and decision-making. In Australia, a survey of employer satisfaction with the learning of new university graduates reported that there were perceived skill deficiencies in important areas, such as problem solving, creativity and flair, and oral business communications (AC Neilsen Research Services, 2000). Furthermore, Lee and Blaszczynski (1999) report that although employers felt that accounting knowledge and the ability to use accounting information was an important skill, they expected accounting students to learn a multitude of skills including being able to communicate, work in a group environment, solve real-world problems, and use computer and Internet tools. Employers are looking for graduates who have work and life skills and are especially wanting graduates who have, among others, well-developed communication, team-work and problem-solving skills (ACNeilsen, 1998, 2000). A major study of management accounting by Siegel and Sorenson (1999) resulted in employers identifying communication (oral, written and presentation) skills, ability to work on a team, analytical skills, solid understanding of accounting, and understanding of how a business functions as being important for success.

Many writers reinforce the view that oral and written communication skills are considered to be the two most important skills (Clark, 1990; Deppe et al., 1991; Novin and Tucker, 1993; Nelson et al., 1996; Morgan, 1997; DeLange et al., 2006). However, Mangum (1996) indicates that one of the greatest shortcomings of job candidates reported by employers is poor communication skills. This was supported by Borzi and Mills 2001 who discovered a significant level of communication apprehension in upper-level accounting students, suggesting the need for change in how this particular skill is developed within the curriculum.

Daggett and Liu (1997) survey 92 employers of new accounting graduates about their workforce readiness, finding them to be least prepared in writing, presenting and interactive skills, and best prepared in the competencies of entering, retrieving and analysing data. The challenge of delivering graduates with a more extensive skill set is highlighted in a recent European study (Hassal et al., 2005). Their research points to similar employer demands for skills beyond the necessary technical accounting skills, but reported at the same time that employers were unsympathetic with claims from universities that they had limited capacity to deliver on these greater demands. This led to research question 3:

RQ3: What professional skills do employers expect accounting graduates to possess at entry level?

The literature highlights the fact that often employers and students have different perspectives about the nature of the ‘professional skills’ that are required for a successful accounting career. In a large study conducted in 1993, Kim et al. report that the three most important criteria used by employers for selecting accounting graduates are the graduates’ motivation or interest in the job, personal qualities and communication skills. However, accounting graduates perceive examination results to be the most important criterion used by employers followed by personal qualities and communication skills.

Radhakrishna and Bruening (1994) compare undergraduates’ and employers’ perceptions of the importance of skills across five broad areas of interpersonal, communication, technical, computer and business-economic skills. They find that students consistently ranked all areas higher in importance than their potential employers. In another study involving undergraduate business students and employers, Gabric and McFadden (2000) find that both students and employers ranked verbal communication, problem-solving and listening skills as the top three general business skills, but for other skills there were clear differences.

It follows that although a shift in emphasis to non-technical skills is becoming more pronounced, perceptions and expectations of different stakeholders are not aligned. Leveson (2000) suggests that in industry, particularly in business, oral communication is the key communication skill, whereas at university written communication receives much more attention. Furthermore, the lack of a shared vocabulary between education and work contributes to the difference in the relative importance of key generic skills between industry and university. It appears that there might be a perception gap between what employers and accounting graduates consider to be important selection criteria. As Gati (1998) suggests, employers might prioritize skills that are not central to graduates, thereby affecting their efforts to secure entry-level graduates who fit their organizational environment. This led to the final research question:

RQ4: What is the difference between student perceptions and employer expectations in terms of the professional skills that are important for a career in accounting?

3. Methodology

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. 1. Introduction
  4. 2. Literature review and development of research questions
  5. 3. Methodology
  6. 4. Results and discussion
  7. 5. Limitations
  8. 6. Conclusion
  9. References

3.1. Sample

We conducted a study involving data collection from 322 graduating students in three universities in Australia1 and 28 practitioners across a number of organizations and industries who employ accounting graduates.

In Institution 1, 172 students were undertaking either a Bachelor of Commerce or a dual degree with Bachelor of Commerce. Of the 160 students who nominated their major, 56 per cent were studying an accounting major, with finance (37 per cent) and international business (7 per cent) being the most popular second major. In Institution 2, all students were studying an accounting major as part of a Bachelor of Commerce or Master in Accounting with finance the most popular second major. The students in Institution 3 numbered 120 and were studying either a Bachelor of Business or a dual degree with business and 68 per cent were studying an accounting major. In terms of preferred employment after graduation, accounting, finance, audit, law and taxation were the preferred areas.

3.2. Data collection

Both quantitative and qualitative (Minichiello et al., 1995) data collection methods were used.

3.2.1. Quantitative measures

The quantitative study involved the same survey being administered to the student cohorts during lectures. The Albrecht and Sack (2000) survey instrument was adopted because it had been validated previously in a large US study. Minor refinements were made for the Australian context and to include areas highlighted by students in pilot focus groups. The survey consisted of three sections:

  • Section 1 asked students to rate on a scale ranging from 1 (strongly agree) to 5 (strongly disagree) statements about the importance of studying various programmes in accounting and business.

  • Section 2 required students to rate 47 specific skills/attributes on a scale ranging from 1 (no priority) to 5 (top priority) in relation to: (i) importance to their future careers, and (ii) the level of priority they perceived had been given to developing these skills during their degree programme.

  • Section 3 requested demographic information from the students relating to the type of programme and the majors they were studying and their intended career path.

3.2.2. Qualitative measures

A qualitative study to assess the expectations of employers and to focus on processes occurring in practice as explained by those directly involved (Miles and Hubermann, 1994) was conducted. During focus groups and individual meetings, a semistructured interview approach was adopted allowing all participants to respond to the same set of questions (Carruthers, 1990). Interviews and focus groups were taped and transcribed to generate facts opinions, and insights (Yin, 1984). Two independent raters (M and N) assessed the transcripts and identified and ranked on a scale of 1 (no discussion) to 5 (much discussion) the attributes and skills that employers considered important. The rankings were then summed to produce a score for every attribute resulting in two sets of combined ‘importance’ scores (Tashakkori and Teddlie, 1998). Discussions between the raters and the investigators resolved any differences that became apparent. The reviews were designed to acknowledge that although ‘generalizations across individuals are of value, it is important that the individual's unique experience is not lost’ (Ashworth and Lucas, 2000, p. 304).

4. Results and discussion

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. 1. Introduction
  4. 2. Literature review and development of research questions
  5. 3. Methodology
  6. 4. Results and discussion
  7. 5. Limitations
  8. 6. Conclusion
  9. References

4.1. Descriptive statistics

Mean scores for statements about the value and relevance of accounting education in the students’ own universities are included in Table 1. Students felt that a core accounting major is a strength of any business or commerce degree (mean score 4.22) and a more attractive major than information systems (4.08), but were less emphatic about accounting being a more attractive major than finance (mean score 3.55). There was moderate agreement with the statements that accounting education is sufficiently integrated with other business disciplines and is keeping up with what is occurring in the business environment (mean scores 3.72 and 3.75, respectively). Although there was agreement that undertaking a dual degree with commerce or business was beneficial (mean score 3.82), students indicated a greater preference for completing postgraduate studies in the professional programmes (mean score 3.77) than an honours or master's programme (mean score 2.58). Interestingly, there was some significant difference between institutions on some points (e.g. respondents from Institution 1 were more likely to undertake professional study and higher degrees than those from Institution 2). Although students from Institution 2 felt that accounting and business education was keeping up with the business environment, their opinion was different from those in Institution 1. This could be explained by the focus adopted by institutions, with Institution 2 having an applied/practical focus.

Table 1.  Student perceptions about the value and relevance of accounting degrees at their own universities
 Institution:Combined N = 321Significant differences only (p = )
N = 172N = 30N = 119
Question123MeanSD1 vs 21 vs 32 vs 3
  1. Scale: 1 = strongly disagree, 5 = strongly agree. SD, standard deviation.

1 Accounting is a more attractive major than finance3.33.673.893.551.23 0.000 
2 Accounting is a more attractive major than information systems3.994.174.194.081.19   
3 The various majors (i.e. finance, accounting, marketing and information systems) are too isolated from each other2.633.003.142.851.160.0930.000 
4 Accounting education is sufficiently integrated with other business disciplines3.613.63.923.721.04 0.008 
5 A core accounting major is a strength of any business or commerce degree4.204.14.274.220.92   
6 After graduation, I intend to undertake studies in professional programmes in accounting3.694.234.514.051.490.0800.000 
7 I intend to undertake postgraduate studies (i.e. honours or master's)2.583.333.402.961.630.0120.000 
8 Undertaking a dual degree with commerce or business is very beneficial3.794.033.833.821.27   
9 Accounting and business education in Australia today is keeping up with what is actually occurring in the business environment3.483.734.143.751.23 0.0000.034

4.2. Research question 1

According to the absolute ratings in Table 2, students indicated that although they felt that all of the skills listed in the survey were of moderate or greater importance, continuous learning (being up to date) was rated most important to future careers. Next in line in order of ranking were decision-making, oral communication, analytical and problem solving, critical thinking, self-motivation/self-direction, professional attitude, teamwork (group interaction), computer literacy and written communication. These skills were closely followed by strong work ethic, values (integrity, respect for others), flexibility and appreciation of cross-cultural diversity.

Table 2.  Student mean emphasis ratings for skills: importance to career versus extent delivered
 Considered importantExtent developedDifferenceSignificance of difference
  1. Scale: 1 = No priority, 5 = Top priority.

Accounting software skills3.832.84–0.990.000
Self-promotion3.492.57–0.910.000
Negotiation3.852.98–0.870.000
Leadership3.893.04–0.850.000
Company promotion3.502.67–0.820.000
Customer service3.712.89–0.820.000
Self-motivated4.113.29–0.820.000
Foreign language3.072.28–0.800.000
Entrepreneurship3.572.79–0.780.000
Professional attitude4.103.32–0.780.000
Oral communication4.183.41–0.770.000
Work ethic4.043.28–0.760.000
Creativity3.783.03–0.750.000
Interpersonal skills3.853.11–0.750.000
Flexibility3.903.17–0.730.000
Decision-making4.193.51–0.680.000
Listening3.693.02–0.670.000
Cross-cultural communication3.352.70–0.650.000
Interdisciplinarity3.873.25–0.630.000
Computer technology competence3.683.05­–0.630.000
Continuous learning4.253.63–0.620.000
Independent thought3.933.31–0.610.000
Citizenship3.182.59–0.600.000
Tenacity3.813.21–0.600.000
Values3.963.37–0.590.000
Computer literacy4.063.49–0.580.000
Cultural sensitivity3.362.79–0.570.000
Risk propensity3.352.78–0.570.000
Project management3.723.16–0.550.000
Change management3.442.90–0.540.000
Risk analysis3.723.18–0.540.000
Problem solving4.193.66–0.530.000
Critical thinking4.113.62–0.490.000
Analytical4.063.57–0.490.000
Ethical awareness3.793.30–0.480.000
Resource management3.583.13–0.450.000
Decision modelling3.633.18–0.450.000
Teamwork4.103.66–0.440.000
Logical argument3.973.54–0.430.000
Social justice3.362.93–0.430.000
Strategic management3.643.23–0.410.000
Cross-cultural appreciation3.192.82–0.380.000
Read with understanding3.913.55–0.360.000
Written communication4.073.78–0.290.000
Measurement3.663.37–0.290.000
Research3.573.51–0.060.365
Technical/bookkeeping3.653.62–0.040.498

The same skills also figured prominently in responses to a question at the end of the survey that asked students ‘to nominate or summarize the three most important qualities that they should possess for a successful career’. Communication, analytical, leadership, teamwork and self-motivation/self-direction skills were, respectively, rated as the top skills.

To add richness to the discussion and to reduce the complexity of the findings, further analysis of the data relating to the skills set was conducted. Using spss version 14 factor extraction on the 47 variables was performed using principal components analysis with Varimax rotation (Tabachnick and Fidell, 1996; Field, 2000). Eight factors or components emerged, which collectively explained 63.65 per cent of the variance among the items.

Table 3 displays the loadings for each item on the eight components. Commonalities for all items in each component are greater than 0.51 indicating that each contributed to the component analysis. Examination of the components was based on the cognitive and behavioural skills areas outlined in Figure 1 by Jones and Sin (2003).2 Eight factors emerged and were labelled: personal and communication, cultural sensitivity, interpersonal and leadership, promotional, analytic/design, appreciative, routine accounting, and ethics. The first six factors have been identified as representing the skills that students perceived as being important to their careers with the Cronbach alpha scores for routine accounting and ethics suggesting these factors be eliminated.

Table 3.  Graduate attributes and skills considered essential to career by students
Factor namesComponent
 1 2345678
  1. Extraction method: principal component analysis with Varimax rotation. Eight orthogonal factors explain 63.65 per cent of variation in the data.

Personal and communicationWritten communication0.7130.0330.0950.0830.1980.0780.142–0.004
Cronbach α = 0.837Teamwork0.6850.0640.1180.0850.1050.110–0.1360.109
Oral communication0.6370.1820.4620.0130.0030.2350.029–0.061
Values0.6220.0180.1470.2570.289–0.1220.0820.362
Tenacity0.578–0.0190.2770.2610.1870.0240.0380.300
Work ethic0.541–0.0170.0580.306–0.0100.2330.2330.241
Problem solving0.5160.0400.2280.1290.2380.3360.171–0.267
Cultural sensitivityCross-cultural communication–0.0570.8660.0810.0650.0440.1330.0760.075
Cronbach α = 0.802Cultural sensitivity0.1180.7990.1110.0650.0640.115–0.0990.268
Cross-cultural appreciation0.1110.781–0.079–0.0200.0540.0130.0820.050
Foreign language0.0050.6730.1850.186–0.032–0.1790.138–0.061
Leadership and interpersonalLeadership0.159–0.0560.6780.1580.1730.1100.0600.230
Cronbach α = 0.730Negotiation0.3130.1840.6480.0270.1830.1260.078–0.161
Interpersonal0.2170.1480.5990.030–0.0570.236–0.0190.249
Measurement0.1590.0430.5890.0820.3030.0600.2880.034
PromotionalSelf-promotion0.2270.1520.0910.8590.0560.1340.0370.030
Cronbach α = 0.665Company promotion0.2230.1200.1080.8440.1580.0680.1420.054
Analytical and designResource management0.1250.0220.1920.1670.7440.0710.1020.133
Cronbach α = 0.880Research0.2490.1090.059–0.1290.7160.0780.014–0.063
Risk analysis0.129–0.0130.1460.3350.6130.1950.1040.158
AppreciativeCritical thinking0.0720.0340.296–0.0100.0920.7150.1060.105
Cronbach α = 0.645Analytical0.1480.0350.0770.1500.3200.675–0.1010.049
Continuous learning0.2300.0180.0860.167–0.0780.6220.3830.121
Routine accountingTechnical bookkeeping0.1160.081–0.1040.1030.0100.1070.744–0.107
Cronbach α = 0.495Accounting software0.1480.0590.189–0.0450.203–0.0080.6700.193
Computer technology–0.1640.0690.3180.1290.0160.0810.5230.062
EthicalEthics0.3080.199–0.048–0.0860.1110.2440.1150.662
Cronbach α = 0.498Listening0.0330.1710.3050.1700.0690.0510.0210.643
image

Figure 1. Generic skills in the core curriculum in accounting.

Download figure to PowerPoint

In answer to research question 1, from the students’ perspective and in line with Morgan (1997) and Jones and Sin (2003), the skills nominated as most important to their career related to personal and communication skills (including self-motivation, professional attitude, oral and written communication, teamwork and values); analytic/design skills (including analytical and problem solving); appreciative skills (including decision-making and critical thinking); and leadership and interpersonal skills. Of interest is the perception by students that cultural sensitivity is a skill necessary for their future careers.

4.3. Research question 2

Research question 2 was designed to gauge the perceptions of students concerning the level of priority they perceived had been given to the development of the professional skills during their programme. A series of t-tests was carried out to assess whether the mean ratings for the level of importance to career and the level of priority given to development of these skills during degree programmes were significantly different. As can be seen in Table 2, results for all skills (except technical bookkeeping and research) were significantly negatively different. That is, students across all three institutions felt that there was not enough emphasis placed on the skills they perceived as being necessary to their career in the programmes that were delivered.

With regard to the skills that students rated as being highly important (the top 12), the most significant gaps were in terms of self-motivation, professional attitude, oral communication, decision-making and continuous learning. Written communication was the only skill that came close to matching student expectations in terms of the mean scores recorded (importance 4.07, delivered 3.78). The largest gaps occurred for accounting software skills, self-promotion/motivation, negotiation, leadership and customer service.

Factor extraction on the ratings of 47 variables delivered was performed using principal components analysis with Varimax rotation (Tabachnick and Fidell, 1996; Field, 2000). Seven factors or components emerged, which collectively explained 62.74 per cent of the variance among the items, as described in Table 4.

Table 4.  Factors of attributes and skills delivered during degree programme: students
Factor namesComponent
1234567
  1. Extraction method: principal component analysis. Rotation method: Varimax with Kaiser normalization. Seven orthogonal factors explain 62.74 per cent of variation.

Routine (essential to role)Company promotion0.7520.3350.0240.0390.2320.071–0.011
Cronbach α = 0.842Self-promotion0.7440.3690.1100.0830.2110.050–0.068
Accounting software0.6710.0070.2110.224–0.0210.2120.193
Risk propensity0.5730.1510.2410.0760.2770.1530.057
Foreign language0.5670.2360.4070.033–0.012–0.086–0.022
Project management0.5290.1800.0650.1180.0990.2630.149
Computer technology0.527–0.0810.2450.1520.241–0.0450.292
PersonalSelf-motivation0.2700.6980.1520.028–0.0620.2040.123
Cronbach α = 0.805Work ethic0.1970.6950.0850.051–0.0220.0870.318
Values0.0520.6500.1610.2990.1950.270–0.022
Tenacity0.2130.6210.0380.2560.1710.1680.088
Social justice0.1750.6050.1270.1460.2360.0180.015
Cultural sensitivityCross-cultural Communication0.2780.0710.8350.0840.123–0.0090.112
Cronbach α = 0.850Cultural sensitivity0.1920.1450.8180.1350.0760.0270.059
Cross-cultural appreciation0.0760.1540.7770.0770.2100.0990.091
CommunicationTeamwork0.1320.2070.1180.7960.0600.0270.079
Cronbach α = 0.725Oral communication0.2800.1290.1370.7010.0410.1560.199
Written communication–0.0520.2750.0310.5320.0520.4480.142
Strategic managementDecision modelling0.0630.0550.148–0.0560.7550.0440.237
Cronbach α = 0.715Change management0.2810.0720.3510.0120.6300.0500.056
Risk analysis0.4320.164–0.0090.1160.5680.0930.010
Strategic management0.2130.2740.0780.3790.5340.0850.003
Research and logicReading for understanding0.1700.261–0.017–0.056–0.0400.7480.186
Cronbach α = 0.665Logical argument0.0980.1090.0230.1250.2200.7470.163
Research0.1460.0940.0950.3940.0010.583–0.029
AppreciativeContinuous learning0.1770.1520.0350.0070.0450.0750.760
Cronbach α = 0.673Critical-thinking0.094–0.0540.1490.2770.0460.2240.711
Decision-making–0.0670.3090.0700.0740.2440.0900.641

Again the commonalities for all items in each component are greater than 0.51. Comparison with the skills defined in the five areas listed by Jones and Sin (2003) with those which loaded on the seven factors produced in this research resulted in similar definition for three of the seven factors that were labelled: routine, personal and appreciative. Four other factors also emerged from the data and these were labelled cultural sensitivity, research and logic, strategic management and communication. These seven factors have been identified as representing the skills that students believed had been delivered or emphasized as part of their degree programme and Cronbach alpha scores support reliability.

Although there are similarities between the skills that students perceived to be important to their careers and those skills that were emphasized during their degree programmes (routine, personal, appreciative, cultural sensitivity and communication), the level of priority given to most skills during degree programmes fell way short of student expectations when t scores in Table 2 are examined.

In response to research question 2, with the exception of basic accounting and research skills, students did not perceive that an appropriate level of priority had been afforded to developing skills that they perceived as being important to their careers.

4.4. Research question 3

Research question 3 was designed to investigate ‘what professional skills employers expect accounting graduates to possess at entry level’. Employers from accounting (professional services), commerce and industry, and government commented on what attributes (accounting technical and other) they felt were valuable in the graduates they hired from university and which attributes they considered important for accountants in the future.

Table 5 presents the results of the identification of skills and ranking process by the two independent raters (M and N). The extent of overlap between the two raters’ findings is considerable, although the importance rankings between the two did differ in the case of some skills. Combined scores for the two raters revealed that the top three skills required by employers were analytical/problem solving, business awareness/real life experience and basic accounting skills. During focus groups employers indicated that they should be able assume that basic accounting skills and analytical skills should be in place in every accounting graduate. Sadly, some felt this was not always what they encountered and graduates rarely had much business awareness or real life experience, which was highly valued.

Table 5.  Rankings of most important attributes (based on average scores) by employers and students
Raters’ rankings of most discussed attributesRaterOverall ranking employersOverall ranking students
NM
Analytical skills/problem-solving1114
Business awareness/‘real life’ experience242 
Basic accounting skills323 
Ethics/fraud awareness/professionalism455 
Communication: oral/face to face5343
Communication: written612710
Interdisciplinarity: able to work across/knowledge of other disciplines7108 
Teamwork/cooperation/participation8668
Interpersonal/facilitation/ skills9109 
Continuous learning/keeping up to date/refresh basic skills10 101
Business understanding, processes, management practices 7  
Flexibility 8  
Systems knowledge: accounting software, MYOB, Quicken, Microsoft etc. 9 9
Decision-making   2
Critical-thinking   5
Self-motivation   6
Professional attitude   7

There was also demand for oral communication skills, ethical awareness/professional skills, teamwork, written communication and a ‘whole of business’, contextual or interdisciplinary approach to the information that accounting outputs provide. Employers emphasized the need for graduates to develop interpersonal skills and be aware of the need for continuous learning in order to be up to date with a changing, increasingly global environment.

4.5. Research question 4

Research question 4 was designed to investigate whether ‘a difference between student perceptions and employer expectations’ existed ‘in terms of the professional skills that are important for a career in accounting’. Results in Table 5 indicate that while there is some commonality between perceptions of students and expectations of employers, some significant gaps still exist. Although both groups acknowledged the importance of analytical/problem solving skills, oral and written communication skills, teamwork and continuous learning, the rankings given by both groups to each skill were very different (with the exception of oral communication). There were also notable gaps for other skills, such as business awareness, ethics/fraud/professionalism and basic accounting, which were all ranked very highly by employers but not mentioned by students. In terms of the generic skills proposed by Jones and Sin (2003, p. 63) in Figure 1, understandably students were still concentrating on increasing technical skills through continuous learning and improving thinking, appreciative and personal skills such as decision-making, critical thinking and self-motivation. In contrast, employers were far more focused on strong background knowledge skills and growing experience of life and work preferring general business awareness, knowledge of ethics and the profession, an ability to work across disciplines and interpersonal skills. In summary, employers are expecting graduates to be far more ‘job ready’ than is actually the case resulting in noticeable gaps between graduating students’ perceptions of what will be required of them at entry level and the expectations of employers.

5. Limitations

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. 1. Introduction
  4. 2. Literature review and development of research questions
  5. 3. Methodology
  6. 4. Results and discussion
  7. 5. Limitations
  8. 6. Conclusion
  9. References

Because our observations were limited to only three institutions, we must be cautious in interpreting our findings and in suggesting their generalizability. As a means of data collection, questionnaire response rates might be affected by negative or apathetic attitudes towards this form of data collection particularly in large organizations.

It is acknowledged that the information presented in the present paper is from an analysis of the notes and transcripts of interviews conducted with persons from different employer groups. Interviews as used in this study provide information on reported behaviour, attitudes and beliefs. Despite the fact that the process followed Carr and Kemmis's (1986) criterion for action research with participants asked the same questions, interaction with participants during interviews might contribute to the final outcome. Although sampling was random, in an attempt to be representative, it is not claimed that these views are indicative of the views of all employers of accounting/business graduates. As this qualitative study is part of a larger research project, findings are synthesized with those of the quantitative studies to provide a more complete picture. This approach also allows cross-validation of key findings (Brannen, 1992).

When evaluating data collected, it has to be remembered that data yielded by different techniques differ in kind (Shrout and Fleiss, 1979). Although most measurements in the behavioural sciences involve measurement error, judgements made by humans are especially prone to error. To overcome this, a case has been made for the use of aggregated data when they meet such criteria as interrater agreement James (1982).

Finally, the demographic data could have included information on prior life experiences that might have influenced respondents perceptions of the professional skills required.

6. Conclusion

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. 1. Introduction
  4. 2. Literature review and development of research questions
  5. 3. Methodology
  6. 4. Results and discussion
  7. 5. Limitations
  8. 6. Conclusion
  9. References

Students are a key stakeholder group when it comes to examining views about developing skills and attributes to equip them for a career in the accounting profession. The findings of the present study reveal that students rated continuous learning as the most important skill to future careers and, in terms of the Jones and Sin (2003) model, were focused on developing routine technical expertise, oral and written communication skills, analytical and problem-solving skills and appreciative skills including decision-making and critical thinking. Indicative of their stage of life, students focused on ongoing development of personal skills such as professional attitude, self-motivation, leadership and the ability to work in a team.

However, what is of concern is the emphasis currently being placed during accounting programmes on skills that students regard as important. It would appear that the only skills being delivered in accordance with the expectations of students in this study are routine accounting and research skills. Because student motivation to learn and acquire skills is often driven by perceptions about the relevance of these skills to their careers, the findings of the paper have important implications for accounting educators.

With regard to employers, they are expecting graduates entering the profession to have as the top three skills analytical/problem solving skills, a level of business awareness or real life experience and basic accounting skills. Employers also expect oral communication skills, ethical awareness and professional skills, teamwork, written communication and an understanding of the interdisciplinary nature of business. In accordance with the Jones and Sin (2003) model, employers are requiring more ‘background knowledge’, life experience and work-related skills. As these expectations have been advocated by employers for some time, it continues to send a strong message to accounting educators in terms of the need to adapt accounting curriculum by incorporating, for example, work integrated learning into programmes.

The results indicate that there is some agreement between students and employers in terms of the skills required for success in a career in today's business/accounting world (i.e. analytical/problem-solving skills, oral and written communication skills, teamwork and continuous learning). However, there is a difference in terms of how each group ranks each skill. In addition, although both students and employers rank oral communication as being highly valued, the emphasis in accounting programmes is still on written communication, a view supported by Leveson (2000), and many of the skills and attributes considered important by both groups are not given the desired level of priority during accounting programmes. This difference would support research claims that accounting graduates are not well equipped to take an immediate role within many employers’ businesses and must be, in some cases, trained quite extensively before they become fully functional.

Perhaps it is unrealistic to expect that graduates will possess the range of skills required by employers (Cranmer, 2006). Employers must understand, as students do, that learning is a continuous process and many of the higher order skills that they expect can only be developed with guidance ‘on the job’. Leveson's finding that there is a lack of shared vocabulary between industry and education might explain the relative lack of commonality between the skills and attributes that students perceive as being important and the ones employers expect. As Gati (1998) observes, if employers continue to prioritize skills that entry-level graduates do not possess then their efforts to secure satisfactory employees might not be very fruitful.

Given the expectations of students and the requirements of employers a much higher level of attention needs to be given to the skills and attributes being prioritized and delivered in accounting programmes if accounting graduates are to survive in today's global business environment. Without a doubt, the skills debate will continue to rage. Any extension of this research should include more studies on the perceptions of graduates already employed in industry and academics and professional bodies who play a huge and very important role in producing curriculum to help develop these skills in future accounting professionals.

Footnotes
  • 1

    The universities were public and private institutions and differed in terms of size, approach and focus. They were selected to allow a more representative cross section of student participants to avoid bias and support generalizable findings.

  • 2

    These skills areas were based on Birkett (1993).

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  2. Abstract
  3. 1. Introduction
  4. 2. Literature review and development of research questions
  5. 3. Methodology
  6. 4. Results and discussion
  7. 5. Limitations
  8. 6. Conclusion
  9. References
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