The impact of the virtual university on accounting and business education

A new publication explores the rapidly expanding relationship between technology and education delivery and the impact for business and accounting education.

The Virtual University: Impact on Australian Accounting and Business Education, is co-edited by Assoc. Prof. Elaine Evans and Prof. James Guthrie from Macquarie University, with Prof. Roger Burritt from the University of South Australia.

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Produced by the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Australia in conjunction with the University of South Australia’s Centre for Accounting, Governance and Sustainability (CAGS), the text explores the many opportunities and challenges for tertiary educators bought on by this evolving education environment.

The text investigates how technological advances and the rise of online education offerings, including massive open online courses (MOOCs), are changing the higher education landscape. In a series of papers by practitioners and academics, the potential impact of this transformation on business and accounting education is explored.

Currently over three million students globally are taking part in MOOCs. As Prof. Guthrie observes on his blog, the access that MOOCs provide have the potential to make future generations more educated than any previous generation, but they also bring many challenges, including high attrition rates and concerns over quality of learning outcomes.

The papers are designed to stimulate discussion around how traditional universities can adapt to the changing market and develop strategies that ultimately create the best possible outcomes for students and professions.

In their introduction to the publication, Guthrie, Burritt and Evans discuss the competitive threat that MOOCs pose to the traditional higher education model of university, with its bricks and mortar. This threat is currently restricted because MOOCs do not offer qualifications, course majors or an on-campus student experience. Nevertheless this could change rapidly, and business schools and accounting departments need to incorporate technology into teaching as part of a blended learning approach.

The issues facing business and accounting education include: the quality of learning outcomes in both a blended learning and MOOC environment; public scrutiny over student qualifications; and the lack of a campus experience for students who want to enter a profession which requires graduate capabilities such as communication skills.

Guthrie, Burritt and Evans conclude that, despite the number of challenges that face a virtual university, accounting and business educators and the accounting profession will have abundant opportunities to collaborate over issues such as credentialing of future business professionals; the quality of blended learning experiences for students; and the production of quality, interactive teaching and learning resources.

Carbon Accounting: New Reporting and Assurance Challenges

The growing international impetus to address climate change means that it is increasingly important for organisations to understand and manage their environmental impacts. In a 2012 article, Nonna Martinov-Bennie reviewed the introduction of carbon management legislation in Australia, and explains the key reporting and assurance issues.

http://www.dreamstime.com/stock-images-co2-emissions-image17305254Carbon Legislation in Australia

The main climate change legislation in Australia is the Clean Energy Act 2011. The Clean Energy Act has four major initiatives: a carbon pricing mechanism, support for innovation in renewable energy, energy efficiency and enhancement in land management. Arguably, the policy with the most significant reporting implications – and also the most controversial – is the carbon pricing mechanism or ‘carbon tax’. The carbon pricing policy establishes an initial fixed price of $23 per tonne of CO2. This price will increase at 2.5% plus inflation until 2015, and then transition to a price determined by a carbon market. While the carbon price is new, it builds on an on-going legislative and reporting framework in Australia that began with the National Greenhouse and Energy Reporting Act in 2007.

Carbon pricing: key issues

As Martinov-Bennie explains, carbon reporting and pricing challenges business to improve their reporting and management in several key areas:

  • Reporting rigour: Because organisations’ survival has not historically depended on its control of environmental impacts, non-financial reporting has not attained the same rigour as financial reporting. By putting a cost on environmental performance, carbon pricing provides incentives for firms to bring environmental reporting standards and controls up to the same high standards.
  • Timely data: Emissions data is typically reported annually. However, the creation of a carbon price questions whether annual reporting is adequate. More frequent   reporting better reflects organisations’ costs and liabilities and can support more effective management of outputs. At least one large mining company is already moving to monthly reporting for operations of over 50-kt CO2.
  • Robust reporting systems: The current legislative framework requires secure data storage and audit trails of changes for five years. Most firms are reporting based on spreadsheets, but it is unlikely that this will be adequate over the long term.
  • Effective reporting teams: Producing effective carbon data requires organisations to create interdisciplinary teams that have the range of skills that effective carbon reporting requires.

Measuring carbon: organisational strategies

Martinov-Bennie also highlights new governance and measurement challenges involved in measuring carbon output:

  • Periodic or Continuous Carbon Reporting: Periodic reporting is the cheapest and most popular method of measuring carbon liability; however, it is also the least accurate. Organisations need to consider whether a more expensive continuous measurement system might better manage the risk of highly variable emissions.
  • Measuring the Right Activity: Accurately measuring carbon emissions requires a thorough and holistic understanding of production, especially when using contractors. For example, a landfill company that outsources emissions to a third party through gas flaring needs to report those emissions.

The future of carbon pricing in Australia?

Despite calls for certainty by the business community, the federal opposition in Australia has promised to repeal carbon pricing legislation if elected in September. However, while many commentators are predicting a change of government and policy, the long-term future of carbon pricing is uncertain. As a small, trade dependent nation, there are limits on Australia’s capacity to remain isolated if other nations move towards carbon reporting and assurance, as recent suggestions that China is considering a carbon pricing mechanism have highlighted.

Also, the long-term value for organisations in rigorous reporting and management of climate change data is not solely a consequence of the Clean Energy Act. Independent international initiatives to report environmental impacts, such as by the Global Reporting Initiative and the International Integrated Reporting Council, suggest growing pressure from stakeholders to report environmental outcomes. The growth in investment funds with sustainability criteria will also benefit firms who can report on their environmental management practices, and suggests a growing need for assurance of these reports.

Finally, as Martinov-Bennie’s article highlights, developing effective reporting of carbon outputs is one part of understanding and evaluating an organisation’s production process. From this perspective, carbon reporting and assurance is not solely an exercise in compliance, but also an opportunity to develop a more rigorous assessment of an organisation’s non-financial impacts and management strategies.

Internal Audit ‘After the Crisis’

In the aftermath of prominent corporate scandals and the global financial crisis, corporate governance has received close attention from regulators and the public. Regulatory responses have focused on increasing governance requirements and disclosures and this has, in turn, driven increased awareness and demand for internal assurance within organisations. Internal audit is integral to corporate governance, and is well placed to provide this assurance. In a recent article, Dominic Soh and Nonna Martinov-Bennie used interviews with audit committee chairs and chief audit executives to investigate internal audit functions in the Australian context, and to consider how their effectiveness might be improved.

 KEY FINDINGS ??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????

1. The scope of the internal audit function has expanded and refocused in recent years. Internal audit is increasingly involved in risk management rather than traditional “tick and flick” financial audits. There is also greater engagement in operational areas, and increased focus on performing a value-adding role, such as identifying how businesses can increase their efficiency and effectiveness. There is a clear expectation that in addition to its assurance role, this ‘value-added’ emphasis will continue.

2. The changing role of internal audit is largely due to regulatory reforms. Increased sensitivity to directors’ liabilities, particularly of those directors on the audit committee, has meant increased acceptance of the importance and value of the internal audit function as the ‘eyes and ears’ of the organisation. Some audit committee chairs described the assurance and comfort from internal audit as greater, and perhaps more valued, than from external audit.

3. The effectiveness of internal audit depends on its structure, resourcing and organisational status.

  • There was a clear preference for an in-house function (or at least an internal chief audit executive), on the basis that intimate business knowledge contributes to an effective audit function and makes it better equipped to meet the audit committee’s assurance needs.
  • Interviewees highlighted the importance of key competencies (audit, finance, operational, technological, and legal), but especially the capacity of the chief audit executive to ‘command the confidence and respect of the people out in the field so as to be able to gain access and cooperation’.
  • Good relationships with, and support from, the audit committee and senior management were seen as critical to an effective internal audit function. For example, it is imperative that the audit committee supports and protects the status and visibility of the function e.g. by providing a platform for internal auditors to present their findings at audit committee meetings, ensuring the chief audit executive is present in operations meetings, and ensuring that management undertakes appropriate remedial action in response to audit recommendations.

4. Performance metrics have not evolved in line with internal audit’s role. Common measures of effectiveness related to the annual audit work plan and to measures of acceptance and adoption of audit recommendations. Since these measures were similar to prior surveys, it is clear that performance evaluation mechanisms have not evolved alongside the expansion and refocus of the internal audit function.

IMPLICATIONS:

1. Internal audit cannot be evaluated in isolation. The quality and effectiveness of the internal audit function is largely dependent on other parties within the organisation, especially the audit committee and senior managers. Consequently, an ineffective internal audit function might indicate that there are broader issues in the organisation’s corporate governance.

2. Whether internal audit meets stakeholder expectations is unclear. The misalignment between the current and evolving role of internal audit and static performance measures makes it difficult to assess whether internal audit is meeting stakeholders’ expectations. Given that the internal audit function serves different stakeholders (who at times have divergent interests) within the organisation, more diverse metrics are required to measure whether internal audit is meeting the potentially different needs of stakeholders. For example, while audit committee chairs emphasised the value of assurance, chief audit executives emphasised ‘value added’ from the organisation’s perspective.

3. New performance metrics may be required. Given the increasing emphasis on the consulting and value adding role of the internal audit function, alternative metrics such as value tracking by cost savings or value creation may better measure the performance and effectiveness of the function. There is however a potential risk that such metrics would impair internal auditor’s independence and objectivity, with implications for the external auditor’s evaluation and reliance on the internal audit function.

4. The chief audit executive skills need careful assessment. The increasing involvement of internal auditors in consulting and operational areas requires staff with industry knowledge and experience. In addition to strength of character and an inquiring mind, the chief audit executive needs strong communication skills to build bridges with all business areas, and to confidently report to higher organisational levels. Developing these competencies is no mean feat, and would take considerable time. Organisations therefore need to consider how limited tenure or rotation of this role could work, if it is required or even tenable.  These also have implications for what the career path of a chief audit executive would ultimately look like.

See: Dominic Soh’s and Nonna Martinov-Bennie’s article and abstract: