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Special Report – Accounting education A new way forward?

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“South Africa has a pressing need for more graduates of good quality, to take forward all forms of social and economic development” – Council for Higher Education (CHE)1.

Within South Africa’s developing economy, accounting education at universities faces several challenges, including underprepared students, curriculum overload, and the need to apply a principle-based teaching model in large, diverse classes. These challenges raise the question: Is it fair to expect ‘new generation’ students2 to complete a BCom degree in three years when the average student usually takes more than four years to complete this degree (if at all)?

The CHE proposal elaborates on the above challenges and calls for a new undergraduate curriculum structure. Central to curriculum reform is the requirement for a flexible and extended programme that provides additional curriculum space. A strong argument is made that the existing accounting undergraduate curriculum should be extended to a period of four years, thus enabling most students to succeed in mastering the core curriculum while enhancing the quality and relevance of the curriculum. A flexible curriculum allows for flexibility in starting points and progression that will enable students to progress in accordance with their level of preparedness and personal circumstances and enable them to maximise their chance of succeeding. Institutions are called upon to seriously consider the implementation of a four-year undergraduate BCom degree for all students while offering  flexible options for high-potential students to complete the degree in three years.

UNDERPREPARED STUDENTS 

The existing accounting curriculum is based on assumptions about what students entering the higher education phase know and can do. However, the appropriateness of these assumptions points to an articulation gap3 between school and higher education. A major cause of this underpreparedness is poor schooling, which is exacerbated by unfavourable family and socio-economic conditions. Even though diversity and inequalities make the articulation gap complex, it does not mean a lack of intellectual capacity, and being underprepared for the traditional forms of higher education does not preclude the potential to be successful.

The existing schooling system does not prepare students adequately for subject choices in commerce or for the business environment in general. Students’ limited prior knowledge of commercial and business contexts makes them struggle to make sense of business and financial concepts. This is even more apparent in students from disadvantaged schools, or without prior experience in a commercial environment. Underprepared students are also lacking in core maths and academic literacy abilities, resulting in students struggling to deal with first-year mathematics, statistics and financial mathematics.

CURRICULUM OVERLOAD

The rapid increase in accounting and auditing standards internationally, regular changes to taxation and corporate legislation, as well as the increased application of technology, have resulted in curriculum overload. Students are following as many as twelve or even fourteen courses in one academic year. Students struggle to cope with the overload and often adopt a surface approach to learning – focusing on short-term memory for the test to be written tomorrow. What was studied for today’s test will be forgotten tomorrow. A surface approach affects the quality of learning, results in marginal passes, and prevents students from  mastering core principles and applications. This supports the argument that a 50 per cent pass requirement does not achieve quality education and that a 60 per cent pass requirement is more appropriate for a professional programme.

“The reality in South Africa today is that, roughly speaking, a student who enrols for a three-year bachelor’s degree has a one in four chance of dropping out by the end of the first year. If she survives beyond the first year she has less than a one in three change of graduating in the three-year minimum time” (Suellen Shay, Dean of the Centre for Higher Education Development, UCT)

 

APPLYING A PRINCIPLE-BASED TEACHING MODEL IN LARGE, DIVERSE CLASSES

The popularity of the CA(SA) qualification has created new challenges when teaching on a professional programme. These include large classes and an increased teaching load. Classes are populated with students from differing cultural and linguistic backgrounds and with a diversity in prior knowledge and exposure. For example, some students have been exposed to computers from a young age while others are still struggling to master basic computer applications.

Accounting educators constantly find themselves having to modify a student-centred teaching approach when confronted with large classes and limited resources. However, it is not always possible to move from traditional teacher-centred knowledge transmission approaches and associated knowledge-based assessment to a principle-based curriculum, for example to focus on conceptual principles that can be applied in future knowledge acquisition. Recently there have been calls from many quarters from within Accounting education as well as universities at large to address what are perceived as deficiencies in learning, namely over-reliance on algorithmic problem-solving, poor abstract reasoning skills, lack of ‘generic’ skills, and an inability to transfer academic knowledge to the workplace.

In response to some of the deficiencies identified in education in South Africa, but more specifically to identify and develop the core competencies of a CA(SA) at entry point to the profession, SAICA has developed its Competency Framework4 that provides guidelines for the design of academic programmes in accounting and to improve the graduate attributes required by employers. Meeting these requirements, among others, points to the urgent need for curriculum reform in accounting education in South Africa.

EXTENDING THE ACCOUNTING UNDERGRADUATE CURRICULUM

The challenges discussed above support the argument for structural curriculum reform as an intervention that is crucial for improved graduate output and quality. Without adding more content, the new undergraduate curriculum should include courses that are multifunctional and include a variety of skills and competencies. Content and tasks that are cognitively demanding should be spread out across courses and semesters. Capstone and enrichment courses that develop skills to answer integrated questions and case studies are crucial. Assessment should include various forms of activities, for example essay-writing, integrated questions, peer evaluation, discussion groups, basic research, and use of computer applications. The focus on principle-based learning will enable students to develop a conceptual basis for analysing and applying theoretical knowledge, exercising judgement, and understanding the kind of information needed to reach an informed decision.

One of SAICA’s criteria for accredited programmes stipulates that the majority of academics involved in the programme should be CAs(SA). However, only a few are willing and able to be educators. Accounting educators are required to adopt a meta-professional role: demonstrating a clear focus on quality and innovative teaching practices for the profession while meeting the research requirements in higher education. Further demands include transformation and the challenges in maintaining and updating technical teaching material. This puts additional pressure on accounting educators, who struggle to meet the employment, evaluation and promotion criteria of their employer (the university) while focusing on the educational needs of the profession.

To sum up: the suggestion is not to add foundation courses (as was done for many of the academic development programmes), nor spreading the existing curriculum over four years, but rather to re-design the existing curriculum from a zero base as a new way of thinking about the Accounting curriculum in the modern globalised economy. This provides an opportunity to focus on framework-based teaching and application of principles that will enable life-long learning for professional accountants. These principles include taking a fresh look at educational frameworks such as spiral learning and scaffolding of knowledge, and encouraging a deep approach to learning. ❐

SOME STATISTICS ON UNIVERSITY STUDENTS IN SOUTH AFRICA5

  • Only about one in four students in contact institutions (that is, excluding Unisa, which only offers distance education) graduates in regulation time (for example, three years for a three-year degree).
  • Only 35 per cent of the total intake, and 48 per cent of contact students, graduate within five years.
  • When allowance is made for students taking longer than five years to graduate or returning to the system after dropping out, it is estimated that some 55 per cent of the intake will never graduate.
  • Access, success and completion rates continue to be racially skewed, with white completion rates being on average 50 per cent higher than African rates.
  • The net result of the disparities in access and success is that less than 5 per cent of African and Coloured youth are succeeding in any form of higher education.

Notes
1 Council for Higher Education (CHE), A proposal for undergraduate curriculum reform in South Africa:  the case for a flexible curriculum structure, Report of the Task Team on Undergraduate Curriculum Structure, August 2013, 15 (the full report can be viewed at http://www.che.ac.za/media_and_publications/research/proposal-undergraduate-curriculum-reform-south-africa-case-flexible).

2 The ‘new generation’ student refers to school-leavers in this millennium, also known as Generation Y.

3 The articulation gap is evident in ways such as superficial engagement with texts, inadequate conceptual development, over-reliance on procedural rather than declarative knowledge, and lack of experience of deep rather than surface learning.

4 SAICA’s Competency Framework: detailed guidance for academic programmes, issued by SAICA, 2010.

5 CHE, A proposal for undergraduate curriculum reform in South Africa.
Author: Ilse Lubbe CA(SA) is a Senior Lecturer at the College of Accounting, University of Cape Town