CPE FOR ACCOUNTANTS: A NECESSARY BURDEN?
It is all a matter of trust! For many years, accountants have been the foundation of business interactions; providing information to managers, shareholders, and investors for decision-making. This responsibility imposes multiple duties on accountants, one being to remain relevant and up-to-date with changes taking place in their professional environment.
Working in a Dynamic Environment
In the last couple of years, the accountancy world has been characterised by an endless wave of changes in accounting principles, standards and regulations. These changes have placed a huge burden on accountants, resulting in a challenge for professional maintenance which, if not dealt with leads to outdated skills and knowledge. One should also keep in mind that accountants are not only concerned with changes taking place in accounting standards, but also in any change that takes place within their clients’ industry. This inevitably imposes a duty on accountants to continuously update their skills and knowledge, which requires commitment from the accountants’ side, together with open-mindedness towards change.
Leaping the Hurdle of Professional Maintenance
With 90.7% of local accountants considering the duty to maintain professional competence as a challenge in their profession, there was a statistical significance indicating that accountants need a proper professional maintenance tool. Presuming that Continuing Professional Education (CPE) fulfils its purpose in this regard, regulators adopted CPE as a tool to equip practitioners for the dynamic world out there. If CPE fulfils this purpose, the public should benefit from peace of mind that accountants are technically competent and up-to-date with changes taking place in the profession. However, the question arises; is CPE fulfilling this purpose?
The Undesired Reality
In reality, most accountants do not feel that the mandatory CPE requirement is providing reasonable assurance to the society that accountants are technically competent. This lack of confidence in CPE among the local accountancy profession can be blamed on the common perception among practitioners that CPE has become the hours one needs to secure his warrant, rather than a means of professional development. Although most professionals want CPE activities to confer legitimacy on their learning, most of the practitioners and their employers do not believe that compliance with the current requirement could genuinely demonstrate their competence. This issue relates to what is referred to by most as the compliance mentality.
The main cause of this mentality was the shift adopted by most regulators from voluntary to mandatory CPE policies. The prevalent attitude among accountants is that attendance at CPE sessions is happening just for the sake of meeting the requirement. This shows that in certain instances attendance at CPE activities is not reflecting real competency, but rather regulatory compliance. Besides this, accountants are highly sceptical about the validity of course attendance certificates. The majority believe that certificates of attendance only indicate physical presence and not professional development. Certificates of attendance are not a proof that an individual has gained professional development from a CPE activity; not even whether the individual has even paid attention to the speaker.
Even though most practitioners blame the mandatory nature of CPE as the cause for this mentality, they still prefer and support mandatory policies. The majority argue that without a mandatory requirement, time and work pressures will suppress any motivation for one to engage in CPE, which is the ultimate drawback of a voluntary approach. Moreover, the mandatory requirement strengthens the reputation of the accountancy profession, since it is one of the few professions which has a compulsory CPE requirement. So, what is to blame?
According to most accountants, it is the measurement approach adopted by regulators to monitor CPE. How can the learning that takes place in a classroom, on the job, or through reading or studying, be measured? This question is deemed by most CPE specialists as the reason for CPE being considered as a complex concept for those regulating it. Regulatory bodies in various professions have long sought a measurement model which would capture the benefit gained from CPE.
To date, regulatory and professional bodies have not yet reached a consensus as to which approach is best to measure CPE. The traditional approach used in most jurisdictions; which is also the case in Malta, is the input-based approach which uses the number of hours as the measurement unit. The other extreme which is adopted by few jurisdictions is the output-based approach whereby the regulator measures the level of professional maintenance and development by means of assessment after each CPE activity.
When presented with these options, most practitioners agreed that a combination of both approaches would provide a better way for regulators to evaluate the effectiveness of CPE. An approach which monitors CPE hours, while involving some form of assessment, provides a better degree of assurance that practitioners are gaining professional development from CPE activities. The drawback of this approach lies in the fact that only few people are ready to submit themselves to regular assessment. Indeed, most practitioners are aware that this is the ideal way of evaluating CPE, but they are not willing to commit to further forms of assessment.
The Role of Employers
Apart from the measurement approach, accountants feel that the perception held by their employer towards professional maintenance and development can also act as a motivator or a deterrent towards CPE. Fortunately, most accounting firms are promoting a learning culture among their personnel, with the aim of ensuring proficient service to their clients. In fact, in Malta those working with accountancy or audit firms, tend to find it easier to meet the CPE requirement, when compared to those working in the industry or as sole practitioners. The difference among these employment categories relate strongly to the employers’ support of CPE. Employers in the industry are generally less interested in CPE since their personnel need not be proficient in vast accounting practices, other than their own specialised industry.
The Way Forward
It is all up to three key stakeholders; (i) regulatory bodies, (ii) employers and (iii) accountants themselves.
In order to ensure that all CPE is of high quality, regulators ought to impose more due diligence on speakers of CPE activities. One should keep in mind that although an individual may be an expert in a certain area of accounting practice, it does not necessarily mean that he/she is capable of effectively imparting his skills to others. Secondly, online CPE should be given more importance. For most practitioners, online CPE is an attractive option which provides them with flexibility that class-based activities lack. Finally, regulators should encourage and incentivise employers to offer in-house CPE or sponsor external CPE courses for their accounting personnel. In line with this, employers should uphold a learning culture which promotes continuous learning and development. More value should be attached to this activity, which may seem futile, but in reality, is adding value to every organisation.
Lastly and most importantly is the approach adopted by accountants themselves towards CPE. In order to make CPE activities more interesting and interactive, practitioners should be more participative. Through discussions and questions, the speaker can delve deeper in certain intricacies which may be of interest to other practitioners attending the session. Moreover, accountants should provide CPE service providers with feedback and suggestions for improvement, together with suggestions about new topics on which CPE activities are rarely conducted. Being the ones facing the industry, accountants are in the ideal position to identify areas which require professional maintenance and development.
So, is CPE a necessary burden?
When accountants in the local industry were asked this question, the majority held that CPE is a necessary burden. This is an acknowledgement that CPE is something accountants deem fundamental for their professional status; however, due to certain instances, such as hectic schedules and time constraints, it may also be perceived as a burden.