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Unisa online - Is the 'poor education' system to blame?

Many topical issues were discussed at Unisa’s Business Breakfast Roundtable under the theme ‘The Development of Human Capital in Knowledge Economy’. From left: Neo Phakama Dongwana (CA and Guest Speaker), Prof Mandla Makhanya (Unisa Principal and Vice-Chancellor), Lize Terre Blanche (CA from Unisa’s Graduate School of Business Leadership), Prof Valiant Clapper (Acting Executive Director: Graduate School of Business Leadership), and Prof Puleng Lenka Bula (Director: VC Projects / Advisor to the Principal)

There are approximately 6 500 (20%) registered black Chartered Accountants (CAs) in South Africa; the other 80% are white. From 2006 to 2011, the average pass rate for the CA board exam was:

  • White people: 78%
  • Indian people: 76%
  • Coloured people: 70%
  • Black Africans: 59%

And while the figures for the black Africans have improved since the 1990s, the effects of poor education have had a major influence on the performance of black professionals far beyond their school years.

This requires urgent attention from all stakeholders, especially government and higher education, says Neo Phakama Dongwana, a leading female CA who works closely with emerging women and young accountants. She said that South African history and the history and structure of the CA profession have framed the areas within which the profession’s challenges are found. “They are in the schooling system, access into and graduating from universities, accessing auditing firms and getting appropriate training and experience, and being drawn into the various economy and industry sectors.”

These topical issues were discussed at Unisa’s Business Breakfast Roundtable under the theme “The Development of Human Capital in Knowledge Economy”. The roundtable, a strategic project in the office of the Principal and Vice-Chancellor, Prof Mandla Makhanya, also launched the university’s acknowledgement of women’s month.

“The idea behind the notion of a knowledge economy is that we are entering a new phase of global development in which knowledge and knowledge societies are integral, if not central, to the advancement of societies… We have sought to blend opportunities of learning from those who are directly involved in the actual work on accounting, auditing and financial management in business circles, and from those who are in academic circles to ensure that theoretical and praxis issues are allowed to flourish and to complement each other,” says Makhanya.

He added that a primary role of a university is to create knowledge and new knowledge is particularly important and beneficial in the context of knowledge economy. Without skilled and trained human resources personnel, Prof Makhanya says we will continue to be inundated by crises of inefficiencies in our work environments.

Dongwana, who delivered the keynote address on “The Prospects and Challenges of Chartered Accountants in SA”, says there are currently only two historically black universities – the Universities of Limpopo and Fort Hare, which are accredited by the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants (SAICA) to teach CA-specific degrees. This, says Dongwana, is a major contributor to the low numbers of black African CAs; and while strides are being made – as the Universities of Zululand and Walter Sisulu are in the process of gaining accreditation – it is still not enough; and this is not where the problem starts.

“It is a South African reality that our schooling system for the majority of people, black and generally poor, does not support the pursuing of careers requiring maths, science and english,” says Dongwana, adding that “it has become worse with the introduction of maths literacy, which does not even qualify one entry into this profession or any of the sciences or engineering.”

She said when maths literacy was first introduced, for every one student that did maths, 15 did maths literacy. That ratio has increased to 1: 26. “This is an indictment on the government, teachers, teacher unions and parents for rendering these kids’ careers stillborn before they have even started, especially in a globally competitive skills and education environment. We need to up our standards not drop them.  I won’t even comment about the famous 30% matric pass rate, as that speaks for itself.  What can you do with that kind of foundation?”

Dongwana also highlighted a few challenges, which particularly in relation to black schools, impacts on qualifying for university entrance. “Albeit the pockets of excellence, public schooling is poor overall; the cost of private education is prohibitive, especially to poor black parents; lack of proper and adequate career advice and training of teachers and the importance of maths and science awareness and career guidance at schools.”
For the fortunate few who manage to gain entry into a university, the challenges still continue.

Firstly, Dongwana says, the cost of university education is prohibitive, especially for the black poor to accredited historically white universities. “This is one of the greatest barriers to entry to university for any degree. Financial assistance in the form of bursaries or scholarships is critical, but even here, lack of knowledge about where to apply for these, and poor academic results, become major hurdles for many.”

She added that success at university is dependent on a number of factors such as supportive and accessible lecturers and tutors; lecturers who can explain difficult concepts; experience gained from vacation jobs offered by the accounting firms; mentoring by those who have come before and understand the challenges; and language plays a role, especially in the first year or two.

Addressing the issue of training, Dongwana says while significant strides have been made by SAICA, the Independent Regulatory Board for Auditors (IRBA), The Association for the Advancement of Black Accountants of Southern Africa (ABASA) and African Women chartered accountants (AWCA), to provide black candidates with training opportunities, certain challenges remain. “These include low levels of utilisation, poor client portfolios, bias towards public sector or black clients, limited responsibilities and opportunities to lead teams, unfair performance evaluation, promotions and remuneration practices, and poor mentoring and sound career management. All of these challenges have a direct impact on the training experience and subsequently influence the individuals’ decision to remain within their firms’ post­ articles or pursue other career paths.”

So what can be done to remedy these challenges? Firstly, Dongwana says, this can only happen if all stakeholders think differently and creatively to find sustainable solutions. The solution starts with fixing the “weak schooling system, which impacts directly”, and targeting black students, assisting them to enter the universities to do a BComm and CTA, by ensuring they are aware of the profession and take the right matric courses.

Higher education, she says, has a critical role to play. Unisa, as an accredited CA institution, with a countrywide student footprint, and a history of partnerships with private education providers for tuition support, has a critical role to play. “… Due to our historical legacy of inferior education, I believe that interventions that involve face time with the students are critical… Unisa should form closer and beneficial partnerships with the unaccredited and recently accredited historically black universities to provide the critical contact sessions for their students in those provinces and support for the universities themselves. These partnerships should also assist in capping or slowing the cost of tertiary education for the majority who cannot afford private institutions.”

Dongwana says professional accounting organisations also play a pivotal role in the mentoring of trainees or young professionals, assisting candidates with exam preparations and networking for success in business. In addition, pressure is also on audit firms to retain and grow black talent; to transform themselves and contribute in transforming the profession at large.

Speaking from both a CA and lecturer perspective, Lize Terre Blanche from Unisa’s School for Business Leadership thanked Makhanya for launching women’s month at Unisa by celebrating professional women and highlighting the realities and challenges women face. “Women and black CAs need to be more visible and act as role models to prospective chartered accounts. We need to expose our children to inspirational role models, not only powerful role models.”

Terre Blanche said even though South Africa’s laws and institutional frameworks are an apt setting for the advancement of women in all sectors, the demand by both private and public sectors for African women CAs is still not being met.  “…To ensure sustainable development, human capital must be maintained or improved. Human capital can include elements such as knowledge, education, training, skills, behavioural habits, energy, physical health and mental health. This includes what I like to refer to as the ‘human package’. It is here where I think that professional women can make significant contributions.”

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