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The Smurfit MAcc: more than an accounting degree

Accounting exam ‘is about judgment and how students use their technical knowledge’

At the UCD Michael Smurfit Business School, the one-year, full-time master's in accounting (MAcc) programme equips graduates with a winning combination of technical, analytical and personal skills. But while the qualification offers an exemption right up to the final year of exams, it is much more than an accountancy training qualification.

Indeed, technical skills are no longer the be-all and end-all for the final accounting exam. Rather, "the exam tends to be about judgment and how students would use their technical knowledge", says programme co-director Mary Canning. "It's an open-book exam, so students have access to the technical aspects in any case. The master of accounting prepares them for this and their subsequent careers by focusing on critical thinking and problem solving."

These skills are increasingly important in the international jobs market, says fellow co-director Derek Moriarty. "The World Economic Forum published a report this year on the future of jobs. It identified complex problem-solving, critical thinking, creativity, people management, teamwork and emotional intelligence as the skills that will be most important in 2020.

“We are building these things into the course modules,” he adds. “We are also including technology and data analytics, as capability in that space is growing more and more important as people progress in their careers.”


Softer skills

One of the major global accounting bodies has also carried out research into skills that tend to be missing in qualified accountants. These are concentrated in the areas of business acumen, data analytics and some of the softer skills.

“We are ensuring that these skills are built into the course modules,” says Canning. “When we go out to talk to undergraduate students, we find that many of them are quite short-term in their outlook. They are focused on getting qualified and getting a job. We tell them that it is important to future-proof their long-term career, and that having a master’s in accounting from a top school is very valuable in this respect.”

Indeed, many qualified accountants do not actually practice accountancy for very long. “We ask students how many of them will stay in accountancy,” says Moriarty. “Around 70 per cent of qualified accountants leave as soon as their training contract is finished. Most of those that leave will go on to join plcs or international organisations.

"Ireland is very fortunate in the number of shared-services centres located here. These carry out a lot of decision support and other value-added activities, and there is huge demand for accountancy skills from them."

Many of these roles are not in finance or accounts areas.

"There is very high demand for highly-qualified finance people from major Irish organisations like CRH, Glanbia, the Kerry Group and so on," Moriarty says. "A lot of these people start in finance and then move on to operational roles. They bring an understanding of the whole value chain of resources as well as the soft skills required for leadership positions. They are good presenters, critical thinkers, and problem solvers."

That is the skill-set required to lead global organisations, according to Canning.

“Global organisations are getting bigger all the time. Businesses are becoming more international and move complex all the time. This complexity plays to the strengths of MAcc graduates. Our students also have a very international outlook. They know that they will be working for organisations that are competing globally, not nationally, and that they need a top quality qualification from a top quality university if they are to succeed.”

Triple crown

The Smurfit Business School certainly offers that. It is the only Irish business school – and among very few worldwide – to hold the triple crown of accreditations from Equis, the AACSB and the AMB. The school also attained a ranking of 36th in a 2015 Financial Times listing of European business schools.

The international dimension is also very important. “Students can learn a lot from the international students on the programme,” says Moriarty, adding that half of the Smurfit MAcc students are from overseas.

"Just the other day I saw a group of students from Croatia, Austria, Germany and Ireland having coffee together and discussing a project. They gain different insights and a broader outlook from working together. It gives them a real international perspective, as well as an international network of friends and fellow graduates, which they can tap into as their careers progress."

So, while there is a strong focus on the wider business and leadership skill-set, accountancy is still central. This is reflected in MAcc graduates’ consistent track record of success in the final admitting exams of Chartered Accountants Ireland. Over the past five years, alumni have performed better than the average, with an overall pass rate of 93 per cent. That is 15 per cent better than the average.

“You are going to be working for 40 years or more, and you need a solid foundation to build your career on,” says Moriarty. “But the world continues to change and we have to change with it.”