In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, SAICA brings together a star-studded panel of CAs(SA) to discuss the steps the industry needs to take to ensure growth and transformation of the industry pipeline.
As a country and as an economy, we are only as strong as our financial systems. And that is much broader than just the accounting profession. However, if you think that chartered accountants are leading one in four of the country’s top companies and make up 76% of CFOs of the JSE’s top companies, it becomes apparent just how imperative it is to ensure that we carry on producing top-quality CAs(SA). That’s why as part of our Courageous Conversations series, SAICA has brought together three stalwarts of the industry to reflect on what needs to be done to preserve the quality, growth and transformation of this important profession.
Setting the scene
Over the past few years, SAICA has worked tirelessly to ensure transformation and growth within the industry. The question now is how do we continue this process under the impact of COVID-19?
To set the scene, who better than Professor Wiseman Nkuhlu, Chancellor of the University of Pretoria and, fittingly, the first black African to qualify as a chartered accountant in South Africa.
‘We are faced with unprecedented challenges today and our resilience as a country, and as various organisations, has taken a heavy knock. In the midst of all of this, we need to focus on rebuilding our resilience, so that we have the capacity to recover and grow,’ he says, urging us to look at the steps currently being taken to support our members and aspiring CAs(SA) and to find ways to further enhance these steps.
‘I have no doubt that just how the crisis will expose the weaknesses in our health system, so it will expose weaknesses in our own organisation,’ he says. ‘It is important that we focus on these shortcomings and in rebuilding, that we take the lessons we learn from the crisis and allow them to equip us for great growth going ahead, so that we come out of it as a resilient organisation.’
Growing and transforming our pipeline during COVID-19
As part of maintaining and supporting the CA(SA) pipeline, a large part of SAICA’s focus is on education, from high school all the way to training. A CA(SA) who is equally passionate about education is Sizwe Nxasana, founder of Future Nations Schools. He is very cognisant of the impact that failing to grow and transform our pipeline can have on our economy.
‘We need to make sure no prospective accountants are left behind,’ he says, ‘and for that to happen, we have to look at the building blocks of education.’
Nxasana explains that there has historically always been a race between technology and education but that in South Africa, education is being left behind. ‘COVID-19 has accelerated technology development, yet 80% of the country’s schools have not been able to do any remote learning during lockdown,’ he says, adding that historically black universities that serve the missing middle and the poorest have not been able to do emergency remote learning either.
‘This is causing immense social pain, and the country needs to rapidly diminish the digital divide among our people, or the knowledge gap is simply going to widen,’ he says.
Even when schools reopen, Nxasana acknowledges it will not be business as usual. Aside from the obvious problems of social distancing, hygiene challenges and feeding programmes being disrupted, Nxasana is extremely concerned about the level of education. ‘The level of maths is already too low, with us battling to get learners to pass at 60%, and now many assessment papers are going to be ignored by universities, or cancelled,’ he says. ‘This is going to have an adverse effect on the quality of university applicants for 2021.’
At university level, Nxasana is concerned that emergency remote learning has been difficult, or impossible, at historically black universities and other comprehensive universities with ‘missing middle’ students. He is adamant that many decisions which were taken years ago by the government but have never been actioned, such as zero-rating data access to education, would make all the difference. ‘We need to think very creatively around how we make sure we don’t have a situation where the most vulnerable trying to become CAs(SA) fall off the bus during the process,’ he says.
The educator of the future
‘The skills and competencies that educators of the future require must change, as teachers need to have the capacity for online teaching,’ says Nxasana. ‘Even at university level, educators often don’t have competencies such as critical thinking skills and creativity, yet we expect them to impart these skills,’ he says, adding that university professors need to maintain their knowledge and stay relevant via life-long learning.
New knowledge areas
Nxosana believes that the biggest risk the accounting profession faces right now is for standards to be lowered.
In fact, he sees COVID-19 as an opportunity to leapfrog what we teach and how we teach in order to build 21st-century skills. ‘There are so many new knowledge areas, such as artificial intelligence, big data, cybersecurity and the Internet of Things, yet schools and universities aren’t even educating us in these areas,’ he says. ‘Accountants need to move up the value chain; we can no longer afford to just be number crunchers.’
He acknowledges that if we want to add in all these new areas, we need to look at the whole curriculum and decide what is relevant and what can be removed. ‘This is an opportunity to reform the curriculum so we can include those new areas that are becoming a lot more important. Unless we do that, we are just increasing the knowledge gap.’
Up until now, Unisa has been the only online distance learning institution of any decent size, but Nxosana believes that going forward, we must create more blended learning institutions. ‘SAICA has a role to play in shaping how blended learning happens and deciding which areas of knowledge can easily be transferred remotely or using technology. This needs to happen right now, it can’t even wait until next year,’ he says.
For Nxosana, blended learning offers the potential for the development of innovative approaches, including self-paced modular learning as well as new learning modalities delivered through ed tech. ‘Necessity has removed some of the fear and resistance to the integration of technology in education systems.’
That said, he reminds us that university is also a social undertaking. ‘It is a place where students acquire social skills and life skills while interacting with others, which is why blended learning becomes so important,’ he says. ‘We cannot completely lose contact learning.’
When it comes to funding, Nxosana believes we need to think very differently around public-private collaboration. ‘We’ve seen it with the Solidarity Fund and other platforms that have brought the private and public sector together. Unless something is done around the funding of universities, there is a huge risk the quality of education will suffer, which will have dire consequences for the industry. We can’t leave this problem to the government alone, we need to explore alternative methods of financing,’ he says.
Challenges and solutions
Providing appropriately qualified CAs(SA) is integral to pulling our country back up to investment level. Ignatius Sehoole CA(SA), CEO of KPMG South Africa, believes it is imperative we look after our pipeline to ensure that no prospective CA(SA) is left behind. ‘If we drop the ball now, we are going to live with the consequences for a long time to come,’ he says.
Sehoole covers the three education phases in the pipeline – schools, universities and trainees and training offices – and tells us about SAICA’s interventions in each.
Sehoole reminds us that when Level 5 of lockdown hit, SAICA had to cease all face-to-face interactions with schools, out of necessity. ‘All initiatives came to a halt, including career promotions initiatives and maths development camps, all of which are good sources of interacting with students and guiding them towards CA as a career choice,’ he says.
He goes on to explain that instead of face-to-face contact, SAICA has been in touch with students online, through radio and via social media to promote awareness of the profession and to offer career guidance.
SAICA has also continued to recruit learners for the Thuthuka bursary. ‘You’ll be pleased to know the Thuthuka bursary application is now digital and for the 2021 intake, students can apply online to be considered,’ he says, urging all readers to help spread the message and make sure people are aware of this.
While face-to-face communications are on hold, SAICA has been communicating with universities and students remotely, and Sehoole says this is a reminder of the importance of blended learning. ‘Whatever initiatives we come up with are not just for this year. They will be taken into the system beyond COVID-19, to make our pipeline more agile and innovative.’
SAICA has also been engaging with universities regarding the academic year. ‘Timing, the curriculum, exams, all of these matters need to be scrutinised to make sure they are fit for purpose,’ he says. ‘It’s about envisioning the university of the future, one that is flexible and able to accommodate different challenges, while still producing good students at the end of the day.’
Accessibility is of course key and Sehoole acknowledges that COVID-19 has highlighted the differences between the haves and have-nots. ‘We cannot afford to ignore one part of the community,’ he says.
As such, SAICA is piloting a student online support programme with the universities of Zululand, the Western Cape and Johannesburg with the hopes of spreading it to all universities. ‘The programme is designed to encourage students to self-manage and to grow in purpose, while experiencing the advantage of creative thinking habits,’ explains Sehoole. ‘This is important, as it’s not only geared towards assisting students in passing exams but gives them a lifelong skill of creative thinking that will help them both in academic and non-academic life.’
Finally, SAICA is engaging with universities on the topic of academic assessment and researching what other methods exist that are more accessible, while still delivering good students. ‘At the end of the day, all of these changes cannot come at the expense of quality,’ says Sehoole.
Trainees and training offices
At this level, much of SAICA’s support is remote, which has worked well during COVID-19. ‘At the moment SAICA is very much focused on rescheduling qualification exams to give the trainees the best chance of success,’ explains Sehoole.
SAICA’s Trainee Tuesday webinars and CA Nights are popular initiatives that are extremely important for the wellbeing and support of aspiring CAs(SA), especially in this time of social distancing.
SAICA has also ensured the availability of various APC support programmes, as well as online repeat programmes, several of which have received funding from the Fasset Seta. ‘To add to this, the SAICA APC Support Academy is a six-week complementary programme that helps students develop specific competencies to assist them in their ability to successfully complete the APC in November,’ explains Sehoole. ‘Students are encouraged to dedicate a minimum of 30 minutes a day continuously for six weeks, and hopefully their ability to tackle the APC will be much improved.’
All of the above solutions are integral to ensuring our pipeline is solid and continues to grow. ‘The reality is, the CA profession needs all of us right now, more than ever before,’ says Sehoole. ‘We all need to work together to ensure this does not collapse, as we will be shooting ourselves in the foot, not only as a profession but as a country.’
AUTHOR | Roberta Coci