One of South Africa’s most daunting educational challenges is to ensure that the average student entering university has a foundation sufficiently strong to handle the demands of university life. With a view to contributing meaningfully to meeting that challenge, SAICA has accredited 13 universities to deliver the chartered accountancy [CA(SA)] programme comprising BCom and the Certificate in the Theory of Accountancy (CTA).
As an extension to the accreditation process, SAICA, keenly aware of the critical need for research, is actively assisting the universities, most of which have been increasing their focus on such endeavours. There could be any number of reasons for this, though foremost among them is the obligation on the part of accounting professors at higher learning institutions to produce several research papers every year to progress and be recognised not only within the universities but throughout the broader academic universe.
As SAICA we support that idea, because universities are knowledge centres generating new ideas and thoughts. The difficulty attaching to this two-pronged approach is that of achieving an effective balance between the resources, human and financial, devoted to research on the one hand, and, on the other, the resources allocated to qualifying a consistent stream of students for the market. Compounding the problem of balance is a perception that time spent on research benefits the university but detracts from the time that could otherwise have been allocated to qualifying a greater number of students. The concern is very real against the background of a highly dynamic environment that makes it imperative for academics to stay constantly current on matters ranging from rapidly changing accounting and auditing standards to new tax legislation.
It is a phenomenon that is negatively impacting the profession, because the research requirement is driving lecturers out of academia; lecturers who would have otherwise stayed on board simply for the gratification they derive from imparting knowledge to future generations. As CAs(SA), for them research is alien; something for which they feel little passion or concern.
Ultimately, they opt to exit from academia to re-enter the profession or the business world. Ultimately, the universities suffer and too few prospective CAs(SA) emerge from our tertiary institutions. It is an issue that SAICA has discussed with Blade Nzimande, Minister of Higher Education and Training, who is sympathetic to the conundrum while stressing the importance of growing the number of people in colleges from the current few hundred to a couple of hundred thousand by 2014.
For us, the research issue is clearly important. What we need to reconcile is the imperative of research versus the critical need to qualify young people for university and then to quality them from university. And I’m not entirely sure of government’s criteria for what should be a university’s primary objective. If it is about getting university-qualified people into the market place, we must pursue the route that will make it happen swiftly and in a prodigious number. Just as universities are juggling with the conflicting demands of research and student output, so the Ministry of Basic Education needs to dovetail its drivers with those of the Ministry of Higher Education and Training.
Unsurprisingly, Minister Nzimande agrees with our firm belief in access to education, which is why we go to outlying areas to source Thuthuka candidates. However, perhaps the slip between the cup and the lip might be better diagnosed through a realisation that, although school results are an indicator of what can or cannot be achieved at university, they should not be the only indicator. That is why potential beneficiaries of the Thuthuka Bursary Fund go through the University of Cape Town’s Alternative Admissions Research Project (AARP) test, which goes further – in particular, testing cognitive ability and other factors that predict academic success. Learners that pass the test are offered Thuthuka bursaries.
I have little doubt that it is such an approach – one that should surely be broadly emulated – that gets the student through. At the same time, I am fully aware that it is an approach that requires fairly substantial funding. Recognising Thuthuka’s merit, the Department of Labour, through its National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), has topped up the traditional bursary, which covers no more than the academic fee, with enough funding to support the programme to its fullest extent.
Within the tertiary institutions, we value the partnerships we have developed with universities. We continue to support them and will continue to engage with them and the Minister on common primary objectives; on qualifying students to be at one with the nation’s aim of satisfying the market’s urgent need for high quality professionals, while still prioritising research.
Nazeer Wadee CA(SA), is Chief Operations Officer, SAICA.