A generation of better-equipped accounting professionals could not only help guide smarter economic choices in the public and private sectors but also serve as a bulwark against corruption.
South African students are struggling at university. This is now well documented. Students take more years than average to complete degrees and drop out at high rates. With university graduates in the country already among the lowest in the world at 15%, losing this potential injection of skills into our economy is especially gutting. These are future professionals that we desperately need right now – not least to fill the shortage of financial skills that are essential to addressing issues such as the chronic service delivery problem.
According to the last report by the Auditor-General for the 2020/21 financial year, only 16% of our municipalities received a clean audit. In her report, Auditor-General Tsakani Maluleke pointed to the drought of financial skills within municipalities which led to an exorbitant R989 million spend on financial reporting consultants since 2016/17.
Financial experts like chartered accountants (CAs) are more than number crunchers. They can be sustainable business leaders with a moral compass and a social conscience. And they could play a crucial role in cleaning up both the public and private sectors – because the latter is not without its challenges either. Accounting scandals like Steinhoff and Tongaat Hulett and the supermarket giant Spar are becoming alarmingly commonplace.
Nurturing financial expertise to clean up South Africa
Becoming a CA is traditionally a long and intensive struggle for most students, but it has another unfortunate feature of being exclusionary across racial lines.
University lecturer Sedzani Musundwa recently published an article on why only 17% of South Africa’s registered CAs are black. She conducted in-depth interviews with 22 black CAs to find out about their experiences and learned that they faced challenges from accessibility to accredited universities and systemic issues within the higher education sector to the legacy of apartheid. Musundwa calls for more inclusive learning and training practices and for academics to respond to these practical challenges in the education sector.
Low pass rates are often thought to be a result of students’ failure to absorb content from the curricula and sufficiently reproduce it to pass tests. Educators are often so focused on an individual’s ability to master academic or technical material that we seldom look at the conceptualisation and communication of that material. The real-world context of a sizeable cohort of students is too often dismissed or ignored; if a student comes from a marginal community, for instance, they may have had little exposure to Western business examples and therefore automatically be at a disadvantage.
Inclusive teaching practices that go beyond information-transfer
We need to transform teaching practices and learning environments to engage students – no matter which community they come from. Bringing complex concepts to life through the use of videos and online material can help target multiple learning styles, promoting the uptake of information among a broader cohort of students; discussing the financial components of a current event and its real-world impact can be an effective way to get students to care about nuanced accounting issues.
For example, the tailings dam collapse at Jagersfontein mine in September 2022 resulted in three deaths and thousands of rands worth of damage. There are clear signs that health and safety regulations were flouted, along with governance guidelines. If students can be encouraged to see and care about such connections, then we can maybe start to turn the tide on malpractice and corruption.
For this, classrooms would need to transform so that they are not only for teaching technical knowledge but also for preparing students to grapple with societal problems from a business perspective. This is an integral part of accounting standards that encompasses not only technical subject matter but also proves the value of responsible business leaders who are also technical experts. Questions around profitability must be debated and the role of various agents and the wider community need to be drawn into the conversation. We want our future leaders to take all stakeholders into account – not only the shareholders.
Using asynchronous learning materials like videos, online resources, and group sessions could help to give students alternative ways to engage with their subject matter, process knowledge and embed key concepts. By using group projects and local case studies and encouraging students to undertake their own research, they are invited to grapple with academic content and emerge wiser for it!
Recasting roles in the classroom
But such transformed classrooms demand that lecturers step up too. We need to examine ourselves as well as the process of our own knowledge appropriation. We must interrogate our position in the classroom, which may be uncomfortable at times. It is vital for lecturers to move out from behind the lectern and into the classroom (be it virtual or otherwise), becoming part of conversations, listening more than they tell.
Quite simply, if we want to have more successful and professional graduates who go on to make a real impact in business and government, we, as educators need to do more for students. Education may be the most powerful force with which we can change our futures as Nelson Mandela said, but only if we make a concerted effort to change the way we do education first.
Dr Judith Terblanche, Head of the Department of BCom Accounting, School of Professional Accounting at Milpark Education. References are available on request