Letter from a Professional Part 1: What is a Profession?

October 24, 2013

Some years ago, I wrote about professionalism and ranted about how teaching seemed to have lost, or be losing, many of the distinguishing features of a profession. In this post and the next a friend of mine who is an accountant talks about what a profession is. I will respond to the points raised and their relevance to teaching in a subsequent post, but feel free to comment below about how much of this seems relevant to teaching.

I have agreed to assist Andrew Old in providing an overview of various professional concepts which he will then consider their application to the teaching profession.  As background, I am a chartered accountant and work for a Big 4 accountancy firm, so the examples given in the explanations will based on accountancy.

The first initial concept that I wish to explore is that of a profession.  The key features of a profession are the following:

  • Professional qualification;
  • Professional body; and
  • Professional ethics.

In addition to these, which I will expand on in later articles, a professional typically undertakes work which is in the public interest.  For example, accountants both help companies prepare and audit financial accounts.  The information in published financial accounts, for example, is relied upon by banks to provide finance and for shareholders to determine how successful a business is.  A systematic lack of confidence in published accounts would cause a global economic meltdown.

Professional Qualification

A professional qualification is a rigorous academic qualification which is designed to teach a professional everything they need to know to undertake the work required as part of the profession.  Within accountancy, the qualification covers not just bookkeeping and auditing but also business strategy and company law.

The concept of a professional qualification is a very traditional British concept, in most countries there is no professional qualification instead the relevant degree is studied, which gives an idea of how academically rigorous a professional qualification can be.  For example, the pass rates on the last set of ACA exams was between 70 – 90% depending on the paper and it is fairly unusual to have a “first time pass” for all of the exams (there are 15 in total).

Typically a professional qualification is completed after a university degree of any discipline.  I work with colleagues who have degrees in mathematics, chemistry and various foreign languages.  It is possible to take a professional qualification after A-level but this is not the norm although with changes to tuition fees this is becoming more popular.

In addition to the exams and academic side of the qualification, there is a large vocational proportion of the qualification.  This allows trainees to gain “on the job” experience away from the classroom.  Often there will be specific competencies that individuals are required to complete; e.g., write down the double entry (as in bookkeeping) for a specific adjustment to the accounts.

Professional Body

All members of a profession will belong to a professional body and the professional qualification is awarded by this body. A professional body acts as the regulator for the profession, enforcing the professional code of conduct and ensuring that its members act in the public interest.  In addition, it acts in the interest of its members and will often lobby for their positions.  Finally, it may, undertake academic research into the profession and its associated work.

A professional body can be considered analogous, in some ways, to a trade union in its role of supporting members.  They will typically provide legal advice and guidance to members on a number of matters such as resolving ethical dilemmas and represent them in employment tribunals.

Professional Ethics

All professions have a code of conduct which they require their members to abide by in order to practise.  The practice of adhering to this code of conduct is called professional ethics.  UK professional bodies typically tend, as in the legal system, to work on a “principles based approach” to code of conduct rather than a “rules based approach”. There is an important distinct between professional ethics and business ethics.  Professional ethics is based on the work undertaken by the individual and is not restricted to just their day-to-day working life.  Business ethics tends to be company focussed and do not apply outside of working hours.

There are a number of key concepts from the ICAEW code of conduct that will be explained in the next blogpost.  These are listed below:

  • Integrity
  • Objectivity
  • Professional competence and due care
  • Confidentiality
  • Professional behaviour

In addition to providing the ethical concepts that must be demonstrated by individual members, the ICAEW also lists threats to the practice of these ethical concepts.

  • self-interest
  • self-review
  • advocacy
  • familiarity
  • intimidation

It is crucial to any professional code of conduct that it is enforced and professional bodies will typically have a series of tribunals / hearings which enforce the code of conduct. The ICAEW, the professional body for accounts in England and Wales, for example, regularly fines companies for errors in their audit opinions and strikes members off for offences such as drink driving.



  1. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  2. “A systematic lack of confidence in published accounts would cause a global economic meltdown”. I think that should read “A systematic lack of confidence in published accounts has already caused a global economic meltdown”

    All that your friend says about the “accountancy profession” sounds good, but unfortunately this is not how large scale professional accountancy firms actually work. Surely we have seen enough massive examples of bad practice to be sceptical of this. Enron? All the banks?

    The reality is that profesionalism per se is in retreat. It’s not just teachers.

    The fundamental point about a professional is his ability and willingness to say no to a paying client when this is appropriate.

  3. […] this post, Andrew Old and an accountant friend begin to explore what a profession is. Broadly, three […]

  4. […] this post I will consider how the points from the previous 2 posts (here and here) relate to teaching. I have discussed professionalism in teaching before but my views have […]

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