As a country and as an economy, we are only as strong as our financial systems. And that is much broader than just the accounting profession. However, if you think that Chartered Accountants are leading one in four of the country’s top companies, and makeup 76% of CFOs of the JSE’s top companies, it becomes apparent just how imperative it is to ensure that we carry on producing top-quality CA(SA)s.
That’s why, as part of South African Institute of Chartered Accountants’ (SAICA) recent Courageous Conversations series, SAICA chatted to Sizwe Nxasana to reflect on what needs to be done to preserve the quality, growth and transformation of this important profession.
Opportunities in crisis
Nxasana is clearly a glass-half full type of man. Where others see crisis, he sees opportunity, and the COVID-19 pandemic has proved no exception. “If you look at the state of the economy, the numbers are depressing,” he says. “But either you can choose to be depressed, or you can look for solutions.” He goes on to list many opportunities that the country can jump on, in the wake of this crisis, to aid our flailing economy. “Just look at SOEs, there is an opportunity for us to fundamentally reform our economy and the country, and set it up for really sustainable growth going forward,” says Nxasana.
Recently, the ANC and the Tripartite Alliance issued a document about the state of the economy and how to deal with the post-pandemic economic environment, but Nxasana believes that while it has some interesting ideas, there is a lot more that can be done. That we can use COVID-19 and the downgrade to shift the ownership patterns in our country and attend to some of the areas we haven’t attended to in many years. “We know our economy has been very concentrated, it’s all about big government, big business, big labour,” he says, adding that he was shocked to see that less than 400 businesses contribute more than 56% of our corporate taxes. “This indicates just how concentrated our economy is,” he says. “We’ve been talking for 25 years of the importance of promoting SMEs, but it remains just talk.”
As such, Nxasana believes the pandemic brings with it much opportunity for the country to address areas that have previously been ignored. “How we address the transformation of SOEs, how we bring more competition into the ownership patterns in our country, particularly in the network industries, these offer major opportunities for us to stimulate the economy,” he says. “We need to ensure more people are brought into the economy, especially innovation entrepreneurs that are going to create more jobs and therefore stimulate the growth of our economy going forward,” he says.
And this brings us to Nxasana’s true passion. Education. “If we want to make the most of this crisis, we need to look at the building blocks of education,” he says.
Making sure no prospective accountants are left behind
Nxasana is extremely cognisant of the impact that failing to grow and transform our pipeline can have on our economy. “We need to make sure no prospective accountants are left behind,” he says.”
Nxasana explains that there has historically always been a race between technology and education, but that in South Africa, education is being left behind. “COVID-19 has accelerated technology development, yet 80% of the country’s schools have not been able to do any remote learning during lockdown,” he says, adding that historically black universities that serve the missing middle and the poorest have not been able to do emergency remote learning either.
“This is causing immense social pain, and the country needs to act now, or the knowledge gap is simply going to widen,” he says. Nxasana believes now is the time for the country to implement the many decisions, such as zero rating data access to education, that were taken years ago, but have never been actioned. “Failing to implement these decisions has perpetrated the growth of the digital divide in our country.”
Nxasana is deeply concerned about the impact of having lost so many weeks of schooling during the pandemic. “Learners forget more than 25% of knowledge, including what they learnt in the initial part of the year, so social distancing is causing the knowledge gap to widen for the 80% of children who are sitting at home unable to learn,” he says.
He stresses that young women and young people living with disabilities are disproportionately affected. “For girls, this is because they are expected to do chores when they are at home, and also because of the explosion of gender-based violence,” he explains, adding that we need to do a lot more to make sure our girls, and most vulnerable learners, are not left behind.
He also acknowledges that even when schools do reopen, it will not be business as usual.
“Schools have to practise social distancing and increased hygiene regimens, which is extremely difficult in crowded schools,” he says. “Just as worrying is the disruption of feeding programmes and timetables, and the fact that end-of-year assessments are going to be affected, and many assessments are going to simply be ignored,” he says. “All of this is going to have an adverse effect on the quality of learners writing matric this year, and unfortunately that will make its way into 2021 university applicants,” he says, adding that we are facing a real challenge in terms of the kind of student we will be admitting into the accounting profession.
“We really need to reimagine the role we play in schools,” he says, pointing out that despite maths being particularly important for the accounting professions, we’ve been battling to get learners to pass at more than 60%. “We need to do more, there’s a dislocation happening.”
At University level, Nxasana is concerned that emergency remote learning has been difficult, or impossible, at historically black universities and other comprehensive universities with ‘missing-middle’ students. “Contact learning is not going to be possible until a vaccine is found, so we need to think very creatively around how we make sure we don’t have a situation where the most vulnerable trying to become CAs fall off the bus during the process,” he says.
South Africa has been doing a lot of things to grow the pipeline for accountants to get into the system. While these programmes have been successful for over 20 years, Nxasana believes the profession has an obligation right now to reimagine how we build the pipeline and skills to make sure no potential CAs(SA) are left behind.
The educator of the future
For Nxasana, education is as much about the educator as about the curriculum, and as such he stresses that we must think more expansively about the education workforce. “Who is a teacher or educator,” he muses. “Is it someone who went to teachers’ college, someone with specific skills or expertise, are we looking at community-based educators, or all of these people?”
One thing he knows for sure is that the skills and competencies that educators of the future require must change. “As a basic, teachers need to have capacity for online teaching, but even at university level, educators often don’t have competencies such as critical thinking skills and creativity, yet we expect them to impart these skills,” he says.
Nxasana believes we need to all come on board to bridge this divide. “We need to work with faculties, not just accounting, but also the education faculty, and debate how they think of the profession of teaching going forward,” he says.
“We need to think very carefully about who is a teacher at the end of the day,” he adds. “There is an opportunity here when you look at the process of how we produce accountants,” he explains, adding that, just like accountants, educators need to maintain their knowledge and stay relevant via life-long learning.
New knowledge areas
Nxasana believes that the biggest risk the accounting profession faces right now, is for standards to be lowered. “With so many people being unsuccessful in their attempts to enter the profession, there are going to be many who argue that standards must be lowered,” he says.
Not only does he strongly disagree with this, but he also sees COVID-19 as an opportunity to leapfrog what we teach and how we teach, in order to build 21st-Century skills. “There are so many new knowledge areas, such as artificial intelligence, big data, cybersecurity and the internet of things, yet schools and universities aren’t even educating us in these areas,” he says. “Accountants need to move up the value chain, we can no longer afford to just be number crunchers.”
He acknowledges that if we want to add in all these new areas, we need to look at the whole curriculum and decide what is relevant and what can be removed. “This is an opportunity to reform the curriculum so we can include those new areas that are becoming a lot more important,” he says. “Unless we do this, we are just increasing the knowledge gap.”
Up until now, UNISA has been the only online distance learning institution of any decent size, but Nxasana believes that going forward, we must create more blended learning institutions, in order to create more flexible approaches to the delivery of education at scale. “SAICA has a role to play in shaping how blended learning happens, and deciding which areas of knowledge can easily be transferred remotely or using technology,” he says. “This needs to happen right now, it can’t even wait until next year,” he stresses.
For Nxasana, blended learning offers the potential for the development of innovative approaches, including self-paced modular learning as well as new learning modalities delivered through ed-tech. “Necessity has removed some of the fear and resistance to the integration of technology in education systems.”
That said, he reminds us that university is also a social undertaking. “It is a place where students acquire social skills and life skills, while interacting with others, which is why blended learning becomes so important,” he says. “We cannot completely lose contact learning.”
When it comes to funding, Nxasana believes we need to think very differently around public-private collaboration. “We’ve seen it with the Solidarity Fund and other platforms that have brought the private and public sectors together,” he says. “Unless something is done around the funding of universities, there is a huge risk the quality of education will suffer, which will have dire consequences for the industry,” he says. “We can’t leave this problem to the government alone, we need to explore alternative methods of financing.”
SAICA acknowledges that there is much to be done to ensure no accountants are left behind. That said, we are adamant that, together, we can create a pipeline that encourages more than our fair share of young people who are doing well to come into the profession, and that supports them in doing so successfully. DM/MC