The New Accounting Information System of Italian Public Universities

In order to adapt the accounting information system of universities to the information needs of internal and external stakeholders, Italian lawmaker introduced accrual and cost accounting systems and the documents specified in Table 4 (Law 240/2010, Legislative Decree 18/2012 and Ministerial Decree 19/2014). The deadline for universities to switch to the new accounting information system was 1 January 2015.

The main innovations can be summarized in the following points:

  • • Universities are required to adopt accrual accounting, unlike in the past, when they could adopt the accounting information system they preferred. The non-coexistence between cash- and commitment-based accounting and accrual accounting has been established to prevent the risk of generating confusion in decision-making process. According to several authors, public managers could receive inconsistent information from the joint presence of the two accounting systems and end up by basing their decisions on the traditional public accounting system [28, 37, 57].
  • • Cost accounting must be mandatorily used in order to provide information for the decision-making process and to make public managers accountable in terms of use of public resources, investments and so on [8].
  • • The consolidated 3-year budget must be prepared to ensure the economic and financial sustainability of the medium-term activities of the university.
  • • The consolidated annual budget, consisting of the economic and investment budgets, becomes an authorizing document, thus avoiding the reduction of control on available resources.
  • • The consolidated annual budget (as well as the consolidated annual report) is a single “consolidated” document, which means that it is referred to the university as a whole, including both the central administration and any peripheral unit such as departments, centres of excellence, libraries, etc. [58, 59].
  • • The consolidated traditional public accounting budget and report must be prepared and accompanied by a reclassification of expenses by missions and programmes (connected with the COFOG code), in order to consolidate and monitor public organizations’ accounts.
  • • The consolidated financial statements must be prepared in compliance with the ministerial accounting standards; the consolidation area includes university, university foundations, subsidiaries and other organizations where the university has the majority of votes in the shareholders’ meeting or the power to appoint the majority of the members of the boards of directors.
  • • General accounting standards, the Statement of Assets and Liabilities, the Income Statement and the Cash Flow Statement, valuation criteria for annual report items and criteria for the preparation of the first Statement of Assets and Liabilities have been introduced by Ministerial Decree.

Clearly, the lawmaker wished to ensure the required attention for the economic aspect of management (accrual accounting), the control of the resources used compared to those planned (consolidated annual authorizing budget), the consolidation of accounts of all public organizations at national level (reclassification of expenses by missions and programmes) and the comparability over time and space (general accounting standards and consolidated annual report schemes set forth by Ministerial Decree).

Although several studies have been published on the accounting information system of Italian public universities since the approval of Law 240/2010, most of them have focused on an analysis of the contents of the reform [17, 60, 61], on the implementation stage of the new accounting information system [11, 60] and on existing best practices [8]. There is a lack of studies investigating how these accounting innovations impact on operations and organization. The next sections of our work will analyse in depth one of these issues, connected to the accounting management of research projects.

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