article banner

Get close to the professors

Nick Jeffrey says the accountancy profession needs closer ties with academia

Accountants should work more closely with academia. That was my key takeaway from a trip to Edinburgh last week for the British Accounting and Finance Association meet. It is clear that the academics welcome input from practitioners and I found myself volunteering to share some of my experiences with their students. And I got the impression that lecturers would welcome much more practical input at all stages of research and in all aspects of their work.

Take auditing. The conference heard about some of the research projects under way. It struck me that a lot of the research is reactive. For example: one project looked at one finding from one audit regulator. I felt that was a missed opportunity to look at broader contributing factors.

A gaping hole for investors, and consequently researchers, is the lack of agreement around audit quality indicators (AQIs). Understandably researchers seek to prove causal links between audit quality and things like cost of equity, cost of debt and company performance. The theory is that a strong, robust audit brings lower cost of capital. In the absence of generally accepted AQIs, the researchers must use a proxy for audit quality, and they choose things like audit firm size or market share measured by equity value or number of audits. All of these are misleading for users of an audit. The academics I spoke to understand that but they also told me they need to use something.

Practitioners should shoulder some of the blame here. There have been long-running debates within the profession about AQIs. Just about the only thing we can agree on is that it is difficult. Oh, and that we don't agree! That needs to change or someone else will fill the void. And that could well be a result that we find unsatisfactory, or worse is misleading for investors and other market participants.

For me tax also seems to be ripe for research. In my view the tax profession is facing similar pressures now that the audit profession was facing 15 years ago – public criticism, trust on the wane, professional standards under scrutiny and self-regulation being questioned. In contrast to the result for auditors I don't see many calling for independent regulation of the tax profession. At least, not yet. That could change if there are one or two more examples of what is deemed unacceptable behaviour in the court of public opinion.

Collectively practitioners must help the academic community. We should explain the pressures we and our clients are facing today. We should explain the practicalities behind those live issues. We should demonstrate where we believe academic research could contribute to a step-change in the public benefit attributed to the work of the profession.

Individually, we should support student development by sharing our stories of what it is like at the coal face. I have been remiss in not doing so before. Have you?

Nick Jeffrey is director, global public policy at Grant Thornton