ACCA Chief Helen Brand Expands Education of Accountants Abroad

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Helen Brand, chief executive of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants, is on a mission to expand accounting education across the world.

The London-based organization, which dates back to 1904, is better known overseas, but it now has 11 chapters and 4,000 members in the U.S. The rate of growth has been highest in recent years in emerging economies, such as India, China and Vietnam. The ACCA also continues to have large numbers and steady growth in Europe, Africa and other parts of the world.

This week, Brand visited a networking event of the ACCA’s New York chapter. Before flying back to London the next day, she sat down with Accounting Today to talk about some of the group’s latest initiatives.

“We drive a lot of support for our members through digital channels now because that’s increasingly important for reaching a global population of members,” she said. “But it doesn’t take away the need for face-to-face interaction. I think organizations that cut off face-to-face entirely are heading in the wrong direction if they want to engage with their members. You have to give people options.”

The ACCA has been expanding its educational offerings, partnering with EdX, a provider of Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, on an initiative known as ACCA-X. EdX has mostly been working with universities such as Harvard and MIT, but it is now partnering with the ACCA as well.

“I think the most exciting thing we did in the past few months was introduce ACCA-X,” said Brand. “ACCA is the only professional body on the X platform, and we’ve developed free learning opportunities for people to do our very fundamental papers, and then progress to a full ACCA qualification if they want to. We’ve had hundreds of thousands of people now taking those courses. I think it’s about 90 countries around the world, including the USA, who have gone onto the ACCA learning platform. We see this as a way of giving people access to learning related to the profession who might not otherwise be engaged with us. If they want to, they can then follow the ACCA program in a more formal sense. We have some paid-for courses that follow the free courses afterwards. That’s proving to be very popular.”

Not only accounting students are signing up for the courses. Government employees and regulators in different parts of the world are also taking the courses to learn more about financial literacy. Earlier this year, the International Federation of Accountants selected the ACCA to support the Institute of Certified Public Accountants of Rwanda to support its development and growth, as part of a joint award from the U.K.’s Department for International Development.

“That was a joint award from DFID, which is the British government’s development organization, and IFAC,” said Brand. “We’re going to be working with the Rwandan Institute to help build their capability. ACCA itself is also signing a long-term agreement with the Rwandan Institute to support them as a strategic partner because we think the problem with many aid projects is they begin and end. They’re supposed to have sustainability built into them, but quite often it fades and the partner goes away. So we’re trying to demonstrate that long-term commitment to helping the profession.”

Brand pointed out that there is a shortage of professional accountants in many parts of the world, and the ACCA has set a vision for 2020 to be the number one professional body in developing the accountants that the world needs. “There is a great need for that capability, particularly in the emerging economies,” she said. “That’s driven by the need for sustainability. Certainly the governments of these countries are encouraging development of talent both within the state-owned enterprises and the private sector. We see huge opportunity for the profession as well as ACCA. We’ve been working on it for many decades, but it feels like the next spurt of growth is happening because the educational establishments are aligning with that need for professional accountant career development, and they’re very much focused on employability.”

Universities around the world are focusing more on employability, she noted.

“They need to attract people into their programs, and the way you do that is by showing return on investment in very broad terms in a way that probably wasn’t the case before,” said Brand. “Employers are looking for very specific skills. We know this because we do lots of surveying of employers. We’ve always been a market-driven qualification in terms of asking employers what they need rather than it being an academic construct of accounting theory.”

Throughout the world, including in the U.S., the ACCA is working closely with university faculties to align academic progress with professional qualifications.

“With the global reach and brand recognition of ACCA, many universities are keen to work with us to access our brand volume and the existing global network that we have,” said Brand. “We work with about 600 educational institutions globally at the moment, and it increases every day.”

Last year, the ACCA and the University of London launched a master’s program in tandem with the ACCA’s professional qualification. “Somebody pursuing our professional level can simultaneously obtain a master’s degree from the University of London now anywhere in the world,” said Brand.

The ACCA has also been continuing its work on developing sustainability reporting and integrated reporting.

“It’s a big issue, both from the investor side and the profession’s,” said Brand. “The kinds of things that investors are asking for will be answered if sustainability reporting, and more importantly integrated reporting, actually becomes adopted more widely. I think there is a match there.”

Brand is now a member of the board of the International Integrated Reporting Council, and the ACCA was the first professional accountancy body to issue its own integrated report back in 2011.

“We’ve been evolving with integrated reporting as the discipline has been evolving,” said Brand. “We now have it embedded in our syllabus as well. We see integrated reporting as the logical evolution of corporate reporting and meeting those market needs that have been identified around good governance, sustainability of the business and finance.”

She sees the promotion of integrated thinking within an organization as “Good Business Practice 101.”

“The businesses that have gone with integrated reporting appear to be performing better financially, so the business case around that is quite strong, and more and more examples of good practice are beginning to emerge,” said Brand. “The IIRC website now has some really solid examples of effective integrated reporting.”

So far, integrated reporting has made more inroads in Europe than in the U.S., but Brand is hoping to change that.

“I think it’s still a challenge in the U.S. where the take-up hasn’t been as profound, but we hope that working with IFAC and IMA [Institute of Management Accountants] and others that there will be that increased interest from U.S. businesses,” she said. “My take on it is that a lot of U.S. businesses are doing the integrated thinking, the internal things, but are reticent about the report due to the regulatory environment and the legal environment.”

While financial scandals can damage the brand of global organizations such as FIFA, accountants can play a role in restoring trust.

“I think one of the great benefits of professional accountancy is professionalism and ethics and lifelong commitment to it,” said Brand. “The more you explain that to government regulators and the public, it makes sense to them. I think the profession has a great contribution to make to build trust in business, but it does mean that businesses have to value professionals and put them into positions of authority where they can have influence.”

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