Towards accounting education that balances purpose, people, planet and profit

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Plant growing through coins

By Professor Ian Thomson, Professor of Accounting and Sustainability, Lloyds Banking Group Centre for Responsible Business Centre Director
Department of Accounting, University of Birmingham


In a recent article for the Guardian, Dr van der Kolk correctly bemoaned the technical bias in teaching accounting in many leading business schools. However, his assertion that all business schools choose to teach accounting without ethical consideration of their social, environmental or wider economic consequences is challengeable and certainly does not apply at Birmingham Business School.

Accounting scholars in many business schools have successfully integrated both critical theory, and a consideration for ethics, society and the environment, into their teaching. There is a wide range of research, readings, and examples of ethical, critically-informed teaching materials and textbooks available, which offer insight into teaching ethics within accounting. For example, the Centre for Social and Environmental Accounting*, founded by Professor Rob Gray, placed critically-informed teaching at the core of its mission, inspiring many (including myself) to develop an accounting education that works to resolve the problems associated with irresponsible and unsustainable business.

As a business school that has placed responsible business at the core of its work, Birmingham Business School has adopted a responsible approach to accounting education that goes far beyond the amoral teaching described by Dr van der Kolk. In modules such as ‘Professional Integrity and Reflective Practice’, ‘Social and Environmental Accounting’, and ‘Tax: Principles and Planning’, our students learn about the theory and practices of responsible tax, assurance, accounting and accountability, and how this knowledge can support responsible and sustainable businesses. Students are given the opportunity through the Capgemini Community Challenge to develop solutions to the real problems of third sector organisations.

Our teaching is informed by our interdisciplinary research and extensive engagement activities, which expose problematic thinking and practice within accounting, accompanied by an appreciation of best practice and the need for future developments. Our students are shown: the role that accounting has played in corporate scandals throughout history; accounting and the accountant’s role in money laundering and tax scams; how inappropriate management accounting can lead to ill-informed decisions; how a combination of the dark side of accounting and the dark side of big data can turbocharge exploitative corporate behaviour; and how accounting is implicated in perpetuating our unsustainable world. However, we go beyond shining a light on these problematic issues; we explore how to create and design ethically-informed accounting that can contribute to responsible and sustainable business transformation

At Birmingham Business School, we believe it is not only the choice of subject matter that is important to creating responsible accounting, but also in how we teach it. Innovative teaching methods, such as: dramatic recreations of conflicts; integrating films, documentaries and fiction as well as research findings; role play scenarios; designing informative data visualisation; and problem-based teaching all form part of our solution to the problems in Dr Kolk’s article. Bringing practitioners who have experienced ethical dilemmas and overcome pressures to collude in irresponsible business practices into our classrooms amplifies the impact of our current teaching methods.

Our links to business leaders and alumni through the University’s Business Engagement team ensures our students are aware of key developments in the field which can’t be gained through textbooks. This engagement is a two-way process, with our academics involved in influencing and informing practice in many different ways, for example: providing evidence in standard settings; participation in key policy arenas and professional accounting institutions; helping companies develop innovative accountability platforms and new accounting techniques; speaking at practitioner conferences; hosting workshops, forums or roundtables; and working with influential change agents.

Although we share the concerns expressed by Dr vd Kolk, we are happy to share our experience and expertise that we have picked up during the journey that Birmingham Business School has taken towards creating a responsible business learning environment and a responsible accounting curriculum.

*Professor Thomson is currently the convenor of CSEAR and previously council member responsible for education.


If you want to find out more about the Centre for Responsible Business, you can follow us on Twitter or visit our website. If you’d like any further information on the Centre’s work, please email Sophie Sinclair, our Engagement and Operations Manager.

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