As a young student, Alex van der Watt had dreamt of becoming a captain of industry after he graduated. But a weekend away with friends changed all that. He had completed his articles at PricewaterhouseCoopers two years previously and was enjoying some time out with friends when someone who would later become a colleague suggested that he should consider a career in academia.
“He called me a month later to ask me to apply for a position at my alma mater, Rand Afrikaans University, now the University of Johannesburg,” says Van der Watt. “It was not an easy decision to make as I was just getting used to a corporate salary, but I gave it a shot and I have never looked back.”
He joined RAU as a senior lecturer in 1998 and became an associate professor in 2002. Today he is head of the Department of Accountancy at the University of Johannesburg (UJ). A CA(SA), he also holds a master’s degree in financial management.
Despite taking on the huge responsibility as head of the relatively large Accountancy Department in 2006, Van der Watt chose to continue teaching. It was a decision which indicates his commitment at a personal level to education.
“I’ve been at UJ for 16 years now, and I know in my heart it was the right decision for me,” he says. “Ask any lecturer who enjoys their job why they do what they do, and they’ll tell you that it’s about the passion for making a difference in the lives of young people. The feel-good factor after a good class is priceless. I am also fortunate enough to be part of a department that is highly regarded and successful, and I see that as an enormous privilege.”
AT THE FOREFRONT OF ACCOUNTING EDUCATION
Under his leadership the Department of Accountancy has maintained its position as a frontrunner in generating candidate chartered accountants in the country, with excellent pass rates in the SAICA qualifying examinations for several years.
Van der Watt attributes the success of the department to the passion and commitment of its lecturing staff. It is said that successful leaders tend to surround themselves with people who are better and smarter than they are. It’s a philosophy that Professor van der Watt lives by. “What makes us successful is that we hire the best, we develop our people, and we create an environment that people enjoy working in. Surrounding yourself with extraordinarily smart people constantly opens your eyes to new and bigger ideas. Most importantly, it’s a team effort by passionate individuals.”
He emphasises the importance of an appropriate teaching and learning model and effective academic leadership. “On an ongoing basis we reflect on our student population, their needs and achievements, and we consider the appropriateness of our teaching methods and approach. Today, more than ever, there is a great need to be innovative in response to an environment that is constantly changing.”
He says universities like the University of Johannesburg have to be quick to adapt to the changing demands of talented learners. “In a knowledge economy that means incorporating IT into academic programmes to complement them, always acknowledging that nothing can ever replace face-to-face teaching.”
UJ is currently the largest residential provider of candidate chartered accountants in South Africa with 276 first-time candidates that passed the 2014 SAICA Initial Test of Competence (ITC). Van der Watt attributes this to a decision his department took eight years ago, when the profession experienced a shortage of students entering training.
“We implemented a strategy to increase student numbers,” he says. “It was important for us to challenge the belief that chartered accountancy was the preserve of only a select few because of the rigour and demands of the education and training process. We had to make the profession more accessible to average students with ability. Yes, it’s rigorous and demanding, but we have to push boundaries, focus on students’ needs, and help them to make it.
“Today South Africa still experiences a shortage of chartered accountants, although the global economic downturn in 2008 had some impact on demand. Newly qualified CAs(SA) generally do not struggle to find employment. My advice to young CAs(SA) will be to remember that also in terms of the level and status of employment, you must crawl before you can walk.
“It’s not advisable to look for jobs that you will only really be experienced enough to qualify for when you are in your thirties. It’s also worth noting that there is real shortage in the middle and lower tiers of the accounting profession.”
CONTRIBUTING TO NATIONAL NEEDS AND IMPERATIVES
Van der Watt points out that it’s important to understand that accounting education in South Africa is different from how it is practised abroad, thus creating challenges regarding the positioning of departments within universities. “Here, SAICA and the profession have a direct influence over curriculum and teaching practice. This, together with the rigour and demands of the educational model, requires a focus on profession-orientated education rather than academic research. This is happening in the context of universities who increasingly strive to achieve research excellence and outputs in order to be positioned at the top of international rankings. It is increasingly important for accounting departments to motivate and find their unique place in a university set-up. Their importance should be motivated primarily by their ability to contribute to national needs and imperatives. It is also crucial for accounting academics to articulate better the specific scholarship that underpins and complements profession-orientated education and we need to find ways to measure it appropriately.”
TRANSFORMATION IN THE ACCOUNTING PROFESSION
The South African chartered accountancy profession has seen a steady increase in the number of aspiring African chartered accountants passing their examinations. Under Van der Watt’s leadership, UJ’s accounting department has become the biggest residential provider of candidate African chartered accountants. This year, for the first time, the majority of candidates who wrote the Initial Test of Competence (ITC) at UJ were African, which is a major achievement for the university.
“Everybody understands how critical transformation is, and both the profession and SAICA have been immensely proactive. SAICA’s Thuthuka programme, now ten years old, is set to be exported as best practice to other African countries and developing nations, after receiving the confirmation of the overarching global accounting body and the World Bank as a ‘world first’. Thuthuka has helped grow the number of qualified African CAs(SA) from 322 in 2002 to some 3 000 today, a success that is the result of high standards coupled with strong partnerships with the private sector and government. There is still a gap in throughput between African students and their white counterparts, but on the whole the strides we are making have been admirable.”
Van der Watt attributes much of Thuthuka’s success to practical elements such as housing students of different population groups in the same residence so that they can support each other in their studies, but also stresses that support shouldn’t stop after graduation. “Whilst the focus has been primarily on support during the education phase, it is also important to support trainee accountants during their articles. It is encouraging to see that training organisations increasingly take on this responsibility.”
MAINTAINING GLOBAL ACCOUNTING STANDARDS
The World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Competitiveness Report 2013/14 ranked South Africa as the number one nation in the world for auditing and reporting standards, a huge accolade for the chartered accountant profession and the level of education and training provided. The WEF report has ranked South Africa number one out of 148 countries for 2010/11, 2011/12 and 2012/13 and now also for 2013/14.
“In terms of professionalism and good governance, we are comparable to the best in the world, which is an incredible achievement that signifies great value for South Africa Incorporated,” says Van der Watt. “It’s an evaluation that gives society at large confidence in the profession and means that people know what to expect when they are dealing with a CA(SA).”
He adds that South Africa has long been recognised for producing CAs(SA) who are technically strong and also have other attributes and skills that add value to their role in an organisation. “The reputational value of the CA(SA) qualification is almost immeasurable. It guarantees a good education, good training opportunities, and good employment opportunities. Yes, hard work is required to achieve the qualification, but the CA(SA) brand opens doors, especially for recently qualified CAs(SA).”
A PROFESSION THAT IS CHANGING
Like every occupation in the world today, the chartered accountant profession is changing. “Where the CA(SA) once had almost a purely technical role, today he or she is expected to be a proficient communicator, a problem solver, a strategist, in short a leader in business.
“Ethics, responsible citizenship, and the ability to appreciate the importance of sustainability are just some of the non-negotiables,” says Van der Watt. “CAs(SA) have to be accountable, adaptable to change, able to self-manage and take initiative, and it is these attributes that must be developed during the education phase in order to ensure that we retain the reputation of the qualification.”
“That is also why SAICA’s new Assessment of Professional Competence (APC) exam, which will be written for the first time in 2014, is such an exciting development. The focus of the APC is the demonstration of professional competence and pervasive skills rather than just technical knowledge,” he says. “It involves a case study assessment that requires candidates to apply their technical knowledge in addressing real-life business problems – researching issues, completing tasks, evaluating alternatives and recommending appropriate actions. It’s a significant development and one that will see CAs(SA) playing an even more critical role in the corporate world.”