Ethics and Governance

Ethics and the third-level curriculum

Apr 03, 2018
A recent workshop hosted by Chartered Accountants Ireland reflected on the teaching of ethics at third-level institutions, and how the process might be improved.


There is a growing recognition across the higher education sector of the importance of incorporating ethics into the accounting and business undergraduate curriculum. Arguably, however, ethics is still not given the recognition, platform and prominence it deserves. The espoused importance of incorporating ethics into the undergraduate curriculum may be more form and rhetoric rather than substantive concrete reality. There is a perception that ethics essentially remains an ornamental adornment rather than a real, meaningful and integrated element of core content; that it is seen as ‘a luxury we can’t really afford’.

There remains a gap in our knowledge and understanding of current practices across higher education institutions and professional programmes, of the pedagogic approaches used and of the experience of lecturers in programme design and delivery. People teaching in the area often find themselves pioneering alone within institutions, with limited collegial support and historical reference to draw upon.

With the support of the Publishing Department in Chartered Accountants Ireland, I recently organised a workshop to discuss the teaching of ethics in undergraduate accounting and business programmes in higher education in Ireland. Opening the workshop, Michael Diviney, Director of Publishing at Chartered Accountants Ireland, explained the purpose and importance of the workshop in providing an opportunity for dialogue and discussion among lecturers about curriculum design, delivery and assessment with a view to improving understanding and enhancing practice. It provided a forum for participants to address knowledge gaps, to share and compare experience, to learn from each other, to reflect on challenges and future directions, and to identify potential avenues for collaboration and research.

Four invited guest speakers made presentations and this was followed by group discussions among participants. The presentations and some of the issues arising in the group discussions are summarised below.

Prof. Patricia Barker, Dublin City University

Prof. Barker presented a framework to guide the design of a module in ethics for accounting and business undergraduate degree programmes that incorporates ethical theories, the student, processes, significant influencers, culture and discourse. She emphasised that it was a personal framework drawing on her own experience, preference and reflections, and that it was not intended as a prescription for others.

The curriculum must be centred on the student as a person. The aim should be transformational, focused on encouraging and enabling students to reflect on their beliefs and values, on fostering student self-awareness and awareness of others, and of developing an understanding of their personal ethical perspectives drawing on their life experiences. This is likely to prove challenging, requiring students to move outside their comfort zone. It will require a recalibration of thinking and approach on both the student’s and the lecturer’s part. Fostering competence in ‘ethical listening’ will be of critical importance.

Prof. Barker suggested a range of pedagogical approaches to address the challenges faced in learning and teaching. She emphasised the need for interactive engagement and reflective learning, and for small classes to facilitate this approach; for delivery in the final year of the undergraduate programme when students will have more life experience and enriched habits of thought and outlook to draw upon; for the imaginative use of a diverse range of teaching approaches and support resources including the use of visual art, theatre, film, literature and social media; and for the use of formative assessment methodologies other than traditional examinations.

Dr John Heneghan, University of Limerick

Dr Heneghan presented a reflection on his experience in the design, delivery and assessment of a module for final- year undergraduate students in law and accounting. He explained the importance of the inclusion of the word ‘ethics’ in the module title, validating the subject as an important and worthy part of the curriculum. The fundamental goal of the lecturer in ethics, he suggested, is to bring students to the ‘moral crossroads’, equipped with the tools needed to know the right thing to do, and to exercise judgement consistent with professional obligations. The role of the lecturer is not to moralise to the student but to foster their competence for moral reasoning. The lecturer drawing on her or his personal experience is important in this regard.

Dr Heneghan explained the importance of students understanding the intellectual process involved in reaching judgement, and the contributing elements in evaluating whether a professional judgement is good or bad; openness to truth, acquired expertise, self-correcting processes of learning and personal wisdom. He recommended the work of the Canadian philosopher Bernard Lonergan as an important reference source in this regard.

Beth Picton, Durham University

Ms Picton presented an overview of the findings of a preliminary survey she carried out on ethics education in undergraduate accounting programmes in the UK and Ireland. Key findings included: that generally no distinction is made between accounting ethics and business ethics; that ethics is usually embedded within various subjects in the curriculum rather than delivered as a stand-alone module; that the incorporation of ethics into the curriculum is generally driven by the personal passion of academic staff rather than a drive by institutions to include it as a core module; that teaching ethics is often equated with teaching a code of conduct; and that teaching ethics in small groups is considered best.

Barriers identified to the incorporation of ethics into the curriculum included: lack of space in an already crowded curriculum; the requirements of professional bodies; lack of willing and able staff to teach ethics; and the undervaluing of ethics because it is not a technical skill. Overcoming these barriers requires a shift in how ethics is viewed by both students and institutions. Professional bodies have a potentially key role in encouraging and supporting this. As a final thought, Ms Picton suggested that not including ethics in the curriculum was in itself an ethical statement.

Níall Fitzgerald, Chartered Accountants Ireland

Mr Fitzgerald explained that ethics and governance are core themes in Chartered Accountants Ireland’s Strategy 2020. He outlined the resources and structural supports that Chartered Accountants Ireland devotes to implementing this aspect of the strategy, emphasised its integral nature to all Chartered Accountants Ireland activities, and identified specific elements of the business plan of direct relevance to the strategic theme. By incorporating ethics into professional development, Chartered Accountants Ireland demonstrates the impact ethics has in the real world: it supports members; it benefits businesses, communities and society; it strengthens the economy; and it fosters innovation and strategic development.

Issues identified by workshop attendees

A broad range of diverse views and suggestions emerged during the group discussions, including the following:
  • Ethics should be a core part of the curriculum as a standalone subject rather than a ‘nice-to-have’ module or as an added embedded topic within the more traditional subject areas. To achieve this, institutions must devote adequate resources to underpin the development and delivery of the subject. Chartered Accountants Ireland could provide support to enhance and develop lecturer competence in ethics and could sponsor the development of modules in ethics for undergraduate programmes;
  • Ethics is best delivered to small and diverse classes at the final- year stage. The pedagogy should be student-centred, reflective and interactive. Developing the student’s capacity for autonomous moral reasoning is crucial; the subject should have a strong base in philosophy and should incorporate sociological and institutional perspectives in addition to the psychology of moral behaviour;
  • The incorporation of current news items and contemporary topical issues provide a valuable, diverse and potentially engaging source of teaching and learning material. The use of magazines, films, TV, novels, theatre and the internet provide valuable reference resources; and
  • The use of diverse, non-traditional and formative assessment methodologies should be encouraged and supported. In particular, this can provide a mechanism for encouraging and enabling students to move outside their comfort zone.
The workshop was formally closed by Michael Diviney. In his concluding remarks, he drew attention to the potential value to students of articles about ethics in Accountancy Ireland and other Chartered Accountants Ireland publications including Leading with Integrity – A Practical Guide to Business Ethics by Ros O’Shea. Not only do these resources examine modern ethical issues, they do so from an Irish perspective. Using real Irish examples can help personalise ethics in a way that foreign examples may not. On that note, Chartered Accountants Ireland will publish a new book entitled Cases in Corporate Governance and Business Ethics in 2018.

Following the workshop, attendees indicated that they found the presentations and discussion very useful and would welcome an opportunity to attend similar events in the future. The challenge is to maintain the momentum created by this event to help ensure that ethics takes its place as a core element alongside the more traditional subjects in the undergraduate curriculum.

Hugh McBride is a Senior Lecturer in Business Studies at Mayo Campus, Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology.