South Africa’s quest to undo racial imbalances majorly attributable to our apartheid past suffered yet another major blow with the recent announcement of the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants’ (Saica’s) Assessment of Professional Competence (APC) test results. Saica describes the APC as “the second part of the qualifying examination, which assesses professional competence. To be eligible, candidates must have passed ITC, completed 20 months of a Saica-registered training contract and successfully completed a professional programme.”
Upon successful completion of the assessment, a candidate is awarded a prized CA(SA) designation, which is a ticket to lucrative opportunities for many. However, this designation is still a distant dream for a multitude of black African students who enrol at various institutions of higher learning in the country. Out of 47,889 registered chartered accountants in South Africa, as few as 7,094 (14,8%) are black African and 32,418 (67,6%) are white. Compared with other racial groups, as few as 24% of black APC candidates passed the 2020 exam. This is 30% lower than other racial groups combined. There are ample reasons for this, not the least of which is our disjointed basic education structure.
In its current form, the basic education system prepares pupils for exams and not for life after high school. As teachers, owing to what Nick Taylor calls “standards-based accountability”, we teach our pupils to think about the what instead of the how and why. With the use of previous question papers, they are able to predict with ease the questions that will appear in their exams. Enrolling at higher learning institutions, these pupils get the shock of their lives when they realise that deep rather than surface learning is what gets them over the line.
Interacting with first-year students, one realises they are ill-prepared for the demands of higher learning. The difficulties are often more pronounced among black African students because most of them are subjected to what we will call lukewarm schooling. Most of these students struggle to cope with the standard of their degree expectations – especially in the latter years of their studies – and to reason beyond the obvious academic text.
The majority of them get into a “freeze zone” – panicking at the realisation that what has worked well in the past is now falling flat. Asked to what he could ascribe this grim picture, one senior government accounting official cited “a huge knowledge gap between the high school accounting curriculum and that offered at Saica-accredited tertiary institutions”. Because basic education is such a hugely contested political space, it makes sense that the scope of our school syllabuses is shallow.
On top of this, when you consider the challenge of fluorescent socioeconomic inequalities in South Africa, it is difficult to ignore the contribution that a student’s socioeconomic background plays in their academic success or failure. Being a typical black in South Africa means – barring the privileged few – graduating from a school where access to basic teaching and learning infrastructure is still a dream to many and this inevitably affects their quality of education and schooling.
A sizeable number of these black students come from schools where teachers often supported them financially and otherwise. Since the school environment has smaller numbers than at the university, teachers can also have specific intervention programmes for various groups of pupils struggling with their subjects. This happens in varying proportions at tertiary level and the academic success is chiefly student driven. Realising they are now on their own, many of these students, often first generation, feel a deep sense of aloneness and despair. Hence alarming rates of university dropout and low throughput.
Realising its responsibility towards a racially representative accountancy profession, Saica introduced a bursary fund called Thuthuka. Among others, the beneficiaries have access to academic, social and emotional, as well as mentoring and counselling support. Anecdotal evidence points to the rather underwhelming academic achievement of black students who are not in any kind of structured support programmes like the one afforded to the Thuthuka beneficiaries.
This could mean these programmes help offset any learning losses that may have been triggered by an otherwise below-par quality of basic education these students had to endure. With this in mind, could it be that with more support, the black APC candidates could perform better than their counterparts in other racial groups and thus increase appreciably a pool of black CA(SAs)?
While in training, what sort of exposure are these black candidates afforded that will enable them to do well in the APC exams? Are they exposed to high-quality work-related scenarios that will enable them to face any sort of exam with ease and consequently perform their duties after their training phase with excellence? Who mentors, if at all, these black candidates during their stay in accounting firms? Could things be better if the assigning of mentors (assessors/managers) in “training offices” was legislated?
Another intervention programme for APC candidates that mirrors the model of Thuthuka is what Saica could implement. This way, these candidates could have access to emotional, psychological and logistical support that is currently lacking. Their experiences will be documented and challenges swiftly attended to.
As things stand, most of the available mentoring programmes meant for the APC candidates are just a philanthropic exercise with no real intention of transforming the accounting profession to reflect the demographics of this country. Racism, subtle and obvious, that the black professionals experience in the corporate world cannot be ignored.
Interacting with some of these black APC candidates, we have heard horrendous stories in which they are assigned assessors (managers) who give them a tough time with little support, while their white counterparts are given rich experiences and enabling work environments that set them up for success in their exams. As one social media user remarked at the sight of the results: “A white student has a higher chance of passing this exam than a black student.”
It’s unfortunate that, 27 years into democracy, one’s racial profile still determines one’s chances of success. DM
"There is a miracle in your mess. Don't let the mess make you miss the miracle." ~ Patience Johnson
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