It is important to remember that South Africa is still a developing economy and higher education has an important role to play to bring young people leaving school up to a level where they need to be to be employed as professional accountants, according to associate professor Ilse Lubbe of the University of Cape Town's College of Accounting.
She said so much is expected of professional accountants. They must have knowledge of technology, be able to work in the private and public sector, understand systems and controls, identify risks and manage these, understand governance, have legal knowledge, be ethical, have business acumen and be critical thinkers.
"We are taking matriculants who come from a school system that does not prepare them enough to be independent learners. Then we want them to master all these things in three years," Lubbe said during a panel discussion at the South African Institute of Professional Accountants (SAIPA) Accounting Indaba in Cape Town on Thursday.
"In SA we must maybe think of a four-year undergraduate degree."
Asked about her view on "de-colonising" the curriculum at universities, she said it might be possible in subjects like literature, but not accounting.
"I would rather say we must ensure that the content of the curriculum is relevant for today. There is global knowledge and local knowledge," she said.
"I am for teaching students about SMEs and then going to local communities for examples. At the same time, because of the requirements for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we must also prepare students for the global context they will work in."
Willem Lotter of the Cape Peninsula University of Technology said during the panel discussion that a lot of text books these days are contextualising things.
"Yet, the science behind the field of accounting is hard to decolonise. Accounting concepts and principles are not dependent on culture and background. However, you can do a lot to package it in a better way for students," he said.
For him the most important aspect is having "connectivity" between a university and the industry to provide feedback on what is contained in the accounting curriculum.
"Merely ticking off competency sets will never be enough for the standards required from professional accountants," said Lotter.
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For Professor Lungile Ntsalaze of Unisa the ultimate objective is to provide students with the skills required. In his view there are many routes to reach this goal.
"For me there is no knowledge system that appears to be superior to another. In our field we try to take a few steps towards transforming the curriculum in order to contextualise things," he said.
"The idea is to take what students are familiar with and escalate it to a sophisticated academic concept. If you can make them understand what is close to their reality, you will get them to understand sophisticated concepts."
In his view, the role of tertiary institutions is to unlock access to education and provide everyone the opportunity to prove they are competent in their discipline of choice.
Lastly, Ntsalaze emphasised that 4IR is about life-long learning anyway.
Prof. Rashied Small, who heads up education and training at SAIPA, said guidance to students should be given up front in relation to skills they lack. He also wondered whether the answer would not lie in offering programmes at different speeds for students to complete.
He referred to research done in India and suggested that SA follows a risk-based approach to students' entry to accounting - especially in the light of what 4IR will expect from professional accountants.