Professional accounting education in Bangladesh is accredited by two bodies – the ICMAB and the ICAB. The credential issued by the ICMAB is called Cost and Management Accountant or CMA, whereas that by the ICAB is Chartered Accountant or CA.
Both are professional degrees or qualifications. There have however been recent murmurs that the CMA degree will be declared equivalent to postgraduate degree. Notably, similar to professional accounting or finance qualification, many other disciplines around the world also confer professional qualification. In some cases, a professional degree holder may be awarded a bachelor's or master's degree by a particular university, albeit rare.
The news begs the question whether a professional certificate can or should be considered an academic degree's equivalent. As an 'academic' of accounting discipline, my answer is an emphatic 'No'! The rationale behind this 'No' may lie in the answers to these two queries: what do we mean by an academic degree? And, what really qualifies a qualification as 'professional'?
We cannot genuinely judge any degree if we do not comprehend the philosophical viewpoint and distinction upon which these degrees or certifications are founded and granted.
In the history of education, the concept of higher education is essentially parallel to the concept of university where graduate, postgraduate or doctoral degrees are awarded. Interestingly, the concept of higher education did not originate from 'market demand', rather from an urge to preserve a 'higher social echelon'.
To put it bluntly, the cardinal task of the university was to institute a 'social elite class'. The founding history of Oxford or Cambridge tells us so. This subcontinent's Taxila, Morocco's Al-Qarawiyyin was much the same. Backed by the same philosophy, the University of Paris or Bologna, etc, got established. Even the Nizamiya Madrasahs, the brainchild of the Seljuk emir Nizam ul Mulk, had almost similar aims and orientations.
However, following the inception and diffusion of industrial revolution, markets were exponentially expanding, warranting a large number of skilled manpower. This necessitated the need and practice of providing skilled manpower institutionally. Institutions like London University came forth as the saviour. However, they did not abandon the original philosophy of the university. At the same time, both intellectual debate and market demand continued to be met. Modern universities are pursuing the same trend. That is why today's universities keep their activities simultaneously on two tracks: research and teaching.
Arguably, the fundamental prerequisite for achieving elitism is achieving intellectual supremacy. This emerges from intellectual debate. The universal practice of 'embedding academic freedom' within the concept of university actually derives from this idea. Needless to say, the scope of the term academic freedom is very wide and comprehensive.
Research might be a very simple manifestation of this. Many established views or doctrines get abolished, discarded or even re-emerge due to this academic freedom or research. And in this process, knowledge grows. Very naturally, when universities award degrees, there remains a flavour of this intellectual discourse or debate.
Another component of intellectual debate is logic. That's why logic is so important in academic degrees (although logic is largely absent as a course in our current business degrees), and early academic degrees were essentially liberal arts certifications.
Professional degrees, meanwhile, serve a completely different purpose. There, the main objective is to create an expert in a particular task or field. There is not much room for intellectual debate or discussion. Everything there is like a standard or guideline, with very little scope for questioning. It is what we refer to as a 'positive' approach in research, not 'normative'! Or to put it another way, it is the precise application of current knowledge, not a philosophical argument! The higher the level of proficiency, the better. This makes the scope unidirectional, not multidirectional.
Moreover, academic degrees have prerequisites, i.e., one cannot do post-graduation without graduation. But in a professional degree, this is not essential. One can pursue a CA or CMA degree or something similar after completing elementary or basic education (in my opinion, intermediate level education is not beyond or superior to primary or basic education). Many such examples are available in our country.
Hence, declaring CMA as an academic degree will force us to raise many questions further: is any accounting degree a professional degree? Is accounting just a technical subject? How will the market react to this equivalency?
Furthermore, if a professional degree is equated to an academic degree, its emphasis or focus, as well as expertise or competence, could be lost. Ultimately, both types of degrees lose their intrinsic uniqueness or value.
It is being said that CMA degree holders will be able to sit for the BCS exam once post-graduation equivalency is given. This further raises the question: professional degree is a specialised degree, so why should they go for a civil service exam like BCS?
If they want to be in the civil service, then they should demand that they should get privilege and be appointed in the cadre of specialised services like Tax, Customs, Audit and Accounts. If this demand is met, the government will get specialist manpower, and won't need to spend extra resources on training non-specialised manpower.
To conclude, I believe, an academic degree should never be declared as a professional degree or vice-versa. Indeed, no perspective, theoretical or contextual, can justify this equivalency. We should bear in mind that everything should not be left to the market to decide. Markets comprehend profit and loss, good and bad a little less!
Abdul Alim Baser is an Assistant Professor, Department of Accounting and Information Systems, University of Barishal, Bangladesh and a PhD Student at University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.