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Ethical Educational Interventions: Perceptions of Accounting Students and Graduates and the Legitimation of 'Ethical' Actions

The issue of ethical educational interventions in the accounting classroom is not new. As far back as 1967, the Horizon for a Profession: The common body of knowledge for certified public accountants study indicated that if [t]here were no ethical foundation to the profession then there would in fact be no profession (p. 14). The 1984 Bedford Report identified the need for higher education to develop the entering accountant's ability to think, to communicate, and to understand the nature and role of ethics. The Treadway Commission (1987) and the Accounting Education Change Commission (1990) both cited the need for young professionals to be able to make ethical and value-based judgements. The 2004 Ethics Education Task Force Report to the AACSB stated that business schools must encourage students to develop a deep understanding of the myriad challenges surrounding corporate responsibility and corporate governance and provide them with tools for recognizing and responding to ethical issues, both personally and organisationally. The 2006 Information Paper: Approaches to the development and maintenance of professional values, ethics and attitudes in accounting education programs commissioned by the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC) found that, while there was overall growing interest in professional and business programs responding to the call for greater ethics coverage in the curricula (p. 13), the conclusion was that overall ethics coverage in accounting programs appears minimal (p. 13). These international research studies demonstrate that there have been ongoing requests for ethical educational interventions at the tertiary level of education. However, in New Zealand little research has been done on this issue. This research on the issue of ethical educational interventions in the New Zealand accounting tertiary level curriculum therefore will contribute significantly to knowledge in this area. Furthermore, this study makes another significant contribution to studies on ethical educational interventions because it attempted to find out the perceptions and beliefs held by important but seemingly forgotten stakeholders: accounting students and graduates on the importance of having ethical educational interventions in the accounting curriculum. This approach was taken because it was important to find out directly from the individuals in whom accounting educators are trying to develop important competencies and skills through their university studies, whether or not they perceived that such interventions would have any influence in their ethical decision-making behaviour. Therefore a comparative and longitudinal study using questionnaire survey instruments and semi-structured interviews was conducted with accounting students and graduates. A mixed methods methodology approach was taken to analyse the quantitative and qualitative data subsequently collected from the respondents. What makes this study particularly important is that accounting students and graduates are directly being asked what they think about the issue of ethical educational interventions in the classroom. Do they believe that such interventions would help them become more ethical accountants (individuals) in the real world? Do they believe that such interventions would influence their ethical decision-making behaviour for the better? In addition, they were also asked about the factors they saw as being the most influential on their behaviour and ethical decision-making. This study is therefore important because, from these very important groups of individuals (stakeholders), the benefits of ethical educational interventions in the classroom and whether they would help to develop a better understanding of ethical reasoning and ethics education issues could be explored. After all, the participants of this study are the individuals aspiring to become future chartered accountants of accounting firms and/or future financial controllers and chief executives of businesses. This study makes a further contribution to the knowledge and theory on accounting and ethics education research because it also looked at the legitimation of 'ethical' actions (legitimacy theory) by exploring ethical theories initially and then using these triangulated theories to interpret accounting students' and graduates' responses to hypothetical situations in an attempt to understand their ethical reasoning. The continuing accounting scandals and corporate crises mean that accounting educators and professional practicing accountants (which accounting students and graduates will aspire to when they commence their accounting careers) all have to cringe when their professional ethics are questioned after each accounting debacle. This is because both accounting educators and practitioners have to read about their members falling from grace through inappropriate ethical behaviour. The question of whether or not these members received appropriate instruction through their learning at university always becomes a prominent issue and there is increasing research to suggest that what accounting educators have been teaching has been woefully inadequate in addressing the ethical stances of accounting students and graduates. The questionnaire findings from Section II: Hypothetical Ethical Cases raise some concern. The inability of a significant percentage of accounting students and graduates to identify correctly whether an action was ethical or unethical is quite concerning as the three hypothetical ethical cases were not so complex that the respondents were unable to distinguish between the two conditions. The question arises as to whether these respondents were less sure because they saw such actions as being 'acceptable' to society and therefore, in their minds, legitimate 'ethical' actions to take in the situation. The findings of Section III: Hypothetical Ethical Situations are also of concern in that significant percentages of accounting students and graduates showed themselves as potentially willing participants in unethical and, in some instances, illegal behaviour. The implications of these two findings suggest that more attention needs to be paid to the type of ethical educational interventions that accounting students receive so that the ethical reasoning of individuals can be improved and they understand better what appropriate legitimate ethical actions for society really are. Without this understanding, it can be argued that accounting students and graduates will find it difficult to withstand the legitimacy whirlpool that will draw them straight into the midst of unethical behaviour that seems 'acceptable' to society because it is legal but nevertheless raises questions about the true integrity and professionalism of accountants in practice. The overall findings from this research study indicate that accounting students and graduates perceived ethics education to have only a moderate influence on their ethical behaviour. The majority of accounting students and graduates believed that by the time they reached university studies, their personal values and behaviour had become entrenched and therefore would have more influence on the way they interacted in the corporate world. However, the majority of respondents in this study still believed that it was important to have ethics education in their degree programmes as they believed that this exposure would help them learn how to resolve ethical situations more appropriately if they were ever to be confronted with such situations. This important finding suggests that the type of ethical educational interventions we expose students to will, therefore, have to be carefully thought out by education providers. The issue of legitimation in what might appear to be 'ethical' actions but are really questionable in terms of whether the 'social contract' between the individual (the focus being the accountant for this study) and society is honoured appropriately also becomes an important area to consider in ethics education. Accounting educators therefore need to look carefully at their goals for ethics education so that the curriculum they deliver will have more than a moderate influence on accounting students and graduates when they join the professional and corporate world. It cannot be stressed enough that accounting educators need to maximise the opportunity to influence their students' learning; so that these students leave university with a better mindset of ethical values and socially responsible business practices. A schematic encapsulation of this ethical educational intervention doctoral thesis is provided to summarise the important research directions and findings of this study. The encapsulation highlights the research contributions to knowledge that this study makes and provides a critical reflection on the issue of accounting ethics education.
Type of thesis
Low, M. (2007). Ethical Educational Interventions: Perceptions of Accounting Students and Graduates and the Legitimation of ‘Ethical’ Actions (Thesis, Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)). The University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10289/5840
The University of Waikato
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