Purpose - Given the calls for increased ethics education following recent corporate collapses, this paper aims to examine the significance of ethical issues that challenge the profession and, more specifically, professional accounting bodies. Design/methodology/approach - The study assesses the perceptions via an online survey of 66 professional accounting bodies worldwide in respect of ethical issues, potential causes of ethical failure and the need for ethics education. Findings - Respondents identified a number of important challenges including conflicts of interest, earnings management and whistle-blowing. The findings also demonstrate strong support for participation in prescribing the nature of ethics education by members of professional accounting bodies. Research limitations/implications - The results of this study are based on feedback from 41 per cent of member bodies of the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC). Despite a number of follow-up reminder notices, some regions are under-represented in the responses to the survey distributed to the (then) 160 member bodies of IFAC. Geographic isolation and language limitations contributed to the failure to gain a higher response rate. Practical implications - The findings demonstrate that professional bodies support ethics education at the pre- and post-qualifying levels of education and a willingness to take an active role in promoting ethics education to their members. Originality/value - By addressing member bodies' attitudes to ethics education, this paper fills a gap in prior literature that has been restricted to addressing the attitudes of academics, students and business organisations.