Future Nation Schools' Sizwe Nxasana: No prospective accountant should be left behind

Sizwe believes we need to preserve the quality, growth and transformation of the accounting profession.

In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, chartered accountant and founder of Future Nation Schools Sizwe Nxasana talks to SAICA about the macro-economic impact that our country will suffer if the accountancy profession fails to grow and transform its pipeline during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Opportunities in crisis

Where others see crisis, Sizwe sees opportunity, and Covid-19 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.”

Sizwe believes that, while the document about the state of the economy and how to deal with the post-pandemic economic environment which was recently issued by the AND and the Tripartite Alliance has some interesting ideas, there is a lot more that can be done. 

He says 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 percent of our corporate taxes.

“This indicates just how concentrated our economy is,” he adds. “We’ve been talking for 25 years of the importance of promoting SMEs, but it remains just talk.”

Sizwe says that, how we address the transformation of SOEs and bring more competition into the ownership patterns in South Africa, particularly in the network industries, offers major opportunities to stimulate the economy. “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.”

He adds that, if we want to make the most of this crisis, we need to look at the building blocks of education. 

No prospective accountants are left behind

Sizwe is very cognisant of the impact that failing to grow and transform can have on the economy. “We need to make sure no prospective accountants are left behind.”

He 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 percent 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 adds.

Sizwe 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.”

He is deeply concerned about the impact of having lost so many weeks of schooling during the pandemic. “Learners forget more than 25 percent 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 percent of children who are sitting at home unable to learn.”

He also stresses that young women and 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.

Sizwe notes that, when schools do reopen, it won’t be business as usual as schools have to practise social distancing and increased hygiene regiments, which is difficult in crowded schools.

“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 adds that we are facing a real challenge in terms of the kind of students 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 percent. “We need to do more, there’s a dislocation happening.”

At University level, Sizwe 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, Sizwe 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 Sizwe, 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. 

He says 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 believes that 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. 

“We need to think very carefully about who is a teacher at the end of the day,” he says. “There is an opportunity here when you look at the process of how we produce accountants.”

He adds that, just like accountants, educators need to maintain their knowledge and stay relevant via life-long learning.

New knowledge areas

Sizwe 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.”

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.”

Blended learning

Up until now, UNISA has been the only online distance learning institution of any decent size, but Sizwe 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. 

The 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.”
Public-private partnerships

When it comes to funding, Sizwe 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 concludes that we can’t leave this problem to the government alone and that we need to explore alternative methods of financing.