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April 14, 2008

Accountants nurture grassroots talent

In an effort to alleviate the skills shortage, South Africa’s chartered accountancy body is helping students from disadvantaged backgrounds gain the necessary skills to enter the profession. Carolyn Canham investigates the impact of Thuthuka and its recent results.

Skills shortages are a well-documented phenomenon within the accounting profession worldwide. In South Africa, the problem has an added dimension due to a massive under-representation of black people within the profession.

Nthato Selebi, Thuthuka programme bursary fund manager
According to the US Central Intelligence Agency, 79 percent of South Africa’s population is black African, but the majority of students from this background are underachieving compared to students from other ethnic backgrounds.

In 2004, just 7,236 black students passed higher grade mathematics, compared to 16,907 students from other backgrounds. Of the black students who passed, only 2,406 learners achieved a C grade or higher, which is the requirement for pursuing accounting.

Thuthuka is a South African Institute of Chartered Accountants (SAICA) initiative named after the Zulu verb ‘to develop’. It began in 2002 in the Eastern Cape as a school-level intervention programme called the Thuthuka Education Upliftment Project.

Thuthuka bursary fund manager Nthato Selebi explains: “That programme is geared towards improving the marks of the students to put them in the best position for university entrance and also up-skilling the teachers.”

The second component of Thuthuka is a bursary programme for university students, which is in its fourth year.

Well ahead SAICA recently released the pass rates for its students in 2007, which saw 88 percent pass first year, 82 percent pass second year and 67 percent pass third year. Selebi says these statistics are well ahead of the national average but stresses that it is impossible to compare the Thuthuka pass rate directly with the national average as it is difficult obtaining comparable pass rates from universities.

“The statistics we have obtained are per subject [and those show] our students are performing either at the same level as any other [university] student or better,” he says.

The Thuthuka programme’s target for the proportion of its students to complete their university coursework on time is 30 to 40 percent. Selebi believes the success of the programme is partly due to the students it attracts. “[The students] understand what our mission and our objectives are and they understand the success of this programme hinges on their performance, their sacrifice and their commitment,” he says.

“On top of that, I think the way the programme is structured [has contributed to its success]. They have a sense of camaraderie because they come into university as a group of students identified as Thuthuka students. They live together, they study together, and the extra support is there. So they have a sense of identity from the get go, which allows them, in a sense, to fit in immediately and start understanding they are part of this group concerned with studying and making sure they do well.”

The bursary programme currently has 43 of its original 123 students in honours degrees. There are also another 29 from that group who have fallen behind a little but are still in the system. Those 29 are part of 182 students in the third year. The present honours students will be the programme’s first students to sit and write for the qualifying examination, which is expected to take place in March 2009.

However, the success of the programme is linked to the quality of students completing school. This year, only 271 of its target of 300 places were filled as there were not enough students meeting the required standard. Selebi points out that the engineering and medical faculties are fishing from the same pool of talent.

“For us, if we have anywhere in the region of 200 and above of these students, then we are doing very well, but the pond is still way too small. Hence we continue to try and have interventions at school level on the Thuthuka side to try and identify those students early and nurture them,” he says.

One new programme Thuthuka is introducing, alongside the South African Department of Science and Technology, is a series of maths and science development camps.

“We identify students in grade 11 that are performing at or a little bit below the target we are looking for at matric level and then give then extra academic support,” Selebi notes. “They go away for a week at a camp and there they do extra maths, extra science and extra accounting classes, to try and identify problem areas early.”

There are about ten camps across the country and between 200 and 300 students per camp. Promising students are monitored through senior years and strong performers are invited to a second camp in the final year of school.

The accountancy profession is determined to play a proactive role to develop bright students. Profession leaders realise that offering these students hope, where hope previously didn’t exist, could be the only realistic long-term solution to ensuring South Africa produces enough chartered accountants to sustain a vibrant economy.

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