In this case study, Fred Mear from DMU’s Business and Law faculty and PRME Working Group, describes how the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are linked to his courses on public sector accounting and finance…

Through what DMU course are you teaching about sustainability and the SDGs?

This is through “International Public Sector Accounting and Finance” (ACFI 3210), a third year optional module. There are normally between 200 and 300 students, fairly evenly split between home/EU students and Overseas students. 

The philosophy of the module is to place the context of Public Sector Accounting and Finance Theory into “real life” situations so that students can apply the theory in a work related way.

The module has two assignments and focuses on improving Public Financial Management systems. The first assignment is briefing a junior minister in a highly political environment who will have to explain and defend the government’s policy, but as an apolitical career public finance expert with no expression of policy support or objection, i.e. not veering into the role of policy advisor.

This makes it a highly challenging and different type of assessment to those students have encountered in their academic career. It aims to prepare students to use important financial information in their future careers adding to their employability skills. The second assignment looks at the international agreements on strengthening Public Financial Management (PFM) systems as part of aid conditionality.

The module is open to students who have either come from an Accounting background or a Politics and Public Policy background.

What have you done to make sustainable development issues part of this course?

The students have two sessions on SDGs, one prior to the first assignment and one prior to the second. For the first assignment the session focuses on relating public finance resourcing decisions to SDGs 1-15, and prior to the second assignment they have a session on SDGS 16 and 17 (Strengthening Institutions and partnerships), and the subsequent international agreements on how to assist developing countries in reforming their government accounting systems (International Public Sector Accountings Standards).

For the first assignment the students are required to identify a government policy and defend it.  Government spending primarily focuses on the SDGs (e.g. poverty reduction, equality, climate). Students can not understand resource allocation and public policy debates without understanding the drivers and controls involved. For the year 2021, for example, policies students considered included reducing overseas aid budget, the debate on free school meals, universal credit uplift and housing the homeless during the pandemic amongst many other policies. These policies are framed against the SDGs in general and public policy resourcing.

For the second assignment the students are required to examine the international agreements that were signed in response to the SDGs and link them back directly to the SDGs and focus on the contractual arrangements and international agreements in SDG16 (strengthen institutions) and SDG 17 (partnerships).

Aid conditionality for developing countries is an implementation of SDGs 17 and 16. International aid is implemented under the Paris declaration on aid effectiveness (2005) and the Busan partnership on aid effectiveness (2011) signed by 160 countries and 50 International Donor organisations which were direct responses to the SDGs (and formerly the Millenium Development Goals or MDGs). Through this policy on the implementation of resource allocations, the international support for the other 15 SDGs are funnelled through national government budgets, and there are requirements for the outcomes of national government spending to be measured against the SDGs.

Many students will be working for Accounting or Consulting companies advising governments, or with governments themselves. The course teaches students how to deal with these complex situations and how the changing impact of SDGs changes the framework or government resource allocation.

How does this teaching and learning activity relate to your research, professional background or other DMU activities?

I have been a member of CIPFA (Chartered Institute of Public finance and Accountability) for over 40 years and a fellow of the ACCA (Association of Certified Chartered Accountants).

For the last 25 years I have been involved in Technical Assistance programme for the EU and DfID in helping countries improve their government institutions via improved PFM systems.

Most of the Technical assistance activities have been in Sub Saharan Africa (e.g. The Gambia, Uganda, Botswana) and transitional economies (such as China, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Cuba) and giving workshops for the EC to those involved in negotiating the Public Financial Management aid conditionalities.

My research focuses on assessing the impact of improved PFM systems and the methodology of assessing PFM systems and is the basis for my impact case study (UoA 17) entitled “Building Capacity in Public Financial Management Around the World” which demonstrates SDGs 16 and 17 in action.

I was Lead Investigator for a DMU contract awarded by the World Bank (on behalf of the PEFA Secretariat) looking at PFM diagnostic tools that contributed to guidance published by PEFA for all involved in conditionalities and was part of the assessment of what had been achieved in meeting the objectives of the Busan Partnership agreement in respect of PFM diagnostics.

I was also a trustee of an international aid NGO for over 20 years focussing on Sub Saharan Africa.

How do students benefit from having this focus on sustainability within their course?

It is impossible to understand accounting and public policy reforms internationally without knowing the international agreements and the underlying philosophy and principles behind the decisions. This moves into implementing SDGs in terms of international and contractual agreements to ensure application of SDGs.

To illustrate the benefits, I think it is better to give the students’ viewpoints from the Module Level feedback and also from a student who has had their assignment answer published. The paper was entitled “The impact of the Free School Meal Voucher Scheme on inter-temporal sustainability and sustainable deficit” by Justyna Lada (linking to SDG1) and here are Justyna’s comments:

“Thank you very much to everyone who contributed to the publication of this paper. ………….. I have networked with some really interesting people in relation to the second assignment that we had in this module and, hopefully with the second assignment grades release, I will be able to contribute to the work they are doing in Nigeria.”

“Loved our seminars and every discussion that we had on the go. You’ve definitely opened our minds to a different way of thinking and encouraged people to research and take interest in current affairs. Brilliant module! Brilliant team!”

“…. has inspired me to want to learn more about this subject”

 What would you recommend to colleagues considering adopting a similar approach?

  1. Make it clear which elements of the SDG targets your teaching is focussing on and be specific on the measurements involved.
  2. Put the SDG at the heart of the rationale of the topic you are teaching rather than “this deals with SDG …” adopt  “SDG…. says this, which led to this legislation/agreement which led to …whatever you are teaching”