As the first cycle of the new Assessment of Professional Competence (APC) is completed, it is appropriate to reflect on the decision to substantially change the nature of the ‘Board Part 2’. Alex Watson explains
SAICA clearly states that its role is to develop chartered accountants to be leaders in business, and this change in the final assessment is undoubtedly a step in that direction.
The APC’s focus on real business scenarios, the ability to research different industries and issues, and particularly the focus on professional communication, will better prepare chartered accountants for the role that they will fulfil in their future careers.
In prior years, the vast majority of candidates wrote IRBA’s Public Practice Examination (PPE), with a small proportion (less than 10%) writing SAICA’s examination in Financial Management. As the majority of qualified chartered accountants are not in public practice, the focus of the final assessment and the skills required of qualified chartered accountants was not particularly well aligned.
Irrespective of whether their training office is in public practice, at a financial institution, at SARS, etc, all SAICA trainees now write the same final assessment of professional competence. This implies that the tasks that candidates could be asked to perform include any task that a newly qualified chartered accountant could reasonably be expected to perform in any role for any employer.
While this sounds challenging, it is important to note that the candidates get access to the scenario for the case study five days in advance of the assessment. During that five-day period they are expected to work collaboratively to identify likely tasks that could be asked and to research the industry referred to in the scenario, as well as any clearly identified tax, legal, IFRS, governance or other issues that are identified as potentially relevant (we refer to them as ‘triggers’).
One of the challenges candidates face is gaining an understanding of the difference between technical and professional competence. Reproducing extracts from three of the nine tasks that candidates were asked to perform may give a sense of the difference:
- Draft notes to … in which you explain, with reasons, the accounting effect the … implementation of the long-term share incentive scheme would have on the financial statements …
- Draft a report on behalf of … in which you critically comment on the valuation performed by …This report is to be distributed as part of the board agenda pack …
- List, with reasons, six key initiatives …to enhance business sustainability.
As these tasks suggest, candidates are required to demonstrate their ability to communicate technical issues to different audiences, as well as to identify the circumstances in which an entity is operating. Our professional programme is therefore aimed at helping candidates develop the skills required to prepare for the breadth of potential assessment tasks, as well as acquiring the professional communication skills that they are required to demonstrate on the day of the assessment.
Our philosophy at UCT is that these skills are better acquired through practice than through time in the classroom. Our blended learning delivery model (in conjunction with UCT’s official online education partner, Getsmarter) allows us to give our candidates exposure to our experts on various aspects using a format that accommodates their busy schedules. Our expectation is that candidates do at least four hours of work in an average week, which range from watching short videos on important skills or concepts, reading carefully selected extracts from integrated reports, to assignments that needed to be submitted electronically for individual feedback.
UCT’s APC programme requires consistent effort, regular feedback and close monitoring, which appears to have played a significant role in the development of professional competence. In the first of the six tasks on which the UCT’s APC programme candidates got feedback from markers, only 66 of our 475 (14%) candidates were ranked as competent or highly competent – that is, ‘a pass’. By the end of the programme, we assessed 99% of our candidates as competent. Detailed feedback on individual comments on the assignments, combined with additional tasks, mentoring and practice for 120-odd students who were identified as needing more practice in the latter half of the course, clearly made a difference. While we are pleased with the results, the big gain is the increased ability of the candidates to communicate professionally.
Other important skills that we believe the transition to the APC highlights is the need to be able to research and work effectively in teams. It was clear that many candidates were unaware of the resources in their own firms, or how to use integrated reports to find out about strategy, risk, governance, etc, in practice. The pressure of the five-day period that the scenario is available requires group work, particularly as candidates are only allowed to discuss the case with other APC candidates.
After some initial reticence from some, the feedback on the effectiveness of group work was so positive that in 2015 we have repositioned the group project nearer the beginning of the programme to ensure that candidates embed teamwork in their approach throughout the programme. Peer marking and publishing examples of best practice with the related marking grids (individual feedback) are others tools that have proved effective in helping candidates develop the professional skills that are required.
We asked a lot of our candidates on our programme, and they rose to our challenges. We exposed them to a broad variety and depth of content, set in real South African companies and public entities.
We believe that the ultimate goal should be to prepare chartered accountants to be responsible business leaders and that the APC, and the professional programmes, are playing an important role on the path to reaching that goal.
We were impressed by the time and input given by the team at SAICA to the service providers, and they should be commended for the smooth implementation of such a significant step in the professional education of our future CAs(SA).
Alex Watson CA(SA) is the Richard Sonnenberg Professor of Accounting at the University of Cape Town