There have been plenty of discussions about the decline in the number of students taking and actually passing accounting and mathematics at school level in South Africa.
Yet people shy away from questions around the impact this has on the economy, which requires professional and competent accounting and tax professionals that can offer financial assurance in private and public sector entities.
National Senior Certificate (NSC) results in subjects such as accounting and mathematics are a major problem for universities, although most are loath to admit it.
Accounting is not a prerequisite for admittance to an undergraduate degree in accountancy.
Mathematics is the key – but last year only 28% of all learners who sat for the NSC exam took maths as a subject.
Around half of them achieved 30% or more. To become a chartered accountant, a learner must achieve at least 60%.
Mandi Olivier, senior executive of professional development at the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants (Saica), says that while the basic education system has flaws and students exiting this phase continue to provide universities with challenges in preparing them for the accounting profession, much is being done to bridge the gaps.
“There are a number of additional interventions, programmes and wraparound support initiatives that are offered at tertiary education providers which aim to improve graduation rates.”
Nicolaas van Wyk, CEO of the South African Institute of Business Accountants (Saiba), says there’s a tension between what the education system delivers and what the profession needs.
In response to this, professional bodies – Saiba included – are trying to obtain funding from state institutions such as the National Students Fund or sector training authorities such as the Finance and Accounting Services Sector Education and Training Authority (Fasset) to bridge the gap between what the schools generate and what the business sector requires, he says.
“This means taxpayer money is used for the third time to train the same person.”
Van Wyk says there’s a clear indication that the current system and spending (on education) is not delivering the required results. “As a society we have to – at some stage – address the real issues, which is a failing education system.”
Keith Engel, CEO of the South African Institute of Tax Professionals (Sait), says universities cannot make up for high school. To be a tax professional, a person must have a solid base in mathematics and English.
“If you missed it in high school, you missed it … we see that when we are hiring people. They do not have analytical skills. You cannot really expect the employer to retrain high school skills.”
From a high school perspective, tax is not a subject at school. Economic and Management Sciences is really a mishmash of entrepreneurialism, accounting, economics and tax. “They [secondary schools] are trying to teach more subjects – superficially.”
Sait is working with technikons to train tax technicians to be work-ready. “At the end of the day people want to be employable.”
The South African Institute of Professional Accountants (Saipa) obtains funds from Fasset for its Project Achiever programme, with the objective of changing the learning process.
Most industry bodies expressed concern about the emphasis on the memorising of processes, formulas and solutions without focusing on critical thinking skills.
Prof Rashied Small, Executive: Education and Training at SAIPA, says the methodology they use focuses on reading with comprehension, critical and analytical thinking, and problem-solving.
SAIPA has developed a teaching methodology to assist accounting teachers in teaching learners about doing business rather than pure accounting. Again, Saipa is looking for funding to roll the programme out to secondary schools.
Last year the budget for spending on basic education was R262 billion – more than the combined budgeted spending for innovation, science and technology, police services, social security, agriculture and rural development and job creation (R246 billion).
Professor Amanda Dempsey, senior director at the School of Accounting at the University of Johannesburg, says they are not overly concerned about the drop in learners taking and passing accounting, but they are concerned about the lack of achievements in maths.
Changing world of work
The workplace has also changed over the years and universities have had to adapt to this challenge as well. Dempsey says it has been a learning curve for everyone. The university offers students a course on the fourth industrial revolution, and will be introducing a subject specialising in blockchain and how it is going to change the profession in the near future.
According to Small, the profession will use artificial intelligence (AI) to free accountants from routine and mundane work. The profession will need what he terms “real intelligence” (RI) to apply professional judgement when providing advice and support for businesses.
RI requires a sceptical mind that can interrogate the predictions and outcomes supplied by data and AI.
That is the calibre of accountants and tax experts SA needs.
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