Research unlocks critical skills, says Prof Philna Coetzee


Prof Philna Coetzee believes too few finance professionals consider pursuing postgraduate research opportunities.

This Future of Audit Series interview is proudly brought to you by ACCA.

With the advent of AI technologies and machine learning, the accounting and audit professions are going to be transformed, and academia will need to adapt accordingly, says Prof Philna Coetzee, Associate Professor at Tshwane University of Technology (TUT), who helps head up research in the institution’s auditing department.

Philna holds a PhD in auditing and National Research Foundation research accreditation (since 2015) for her contribution to research in the fields of governance, auditing and risk management. She was formerly the deputy executive dean of the College of Accounting Sciences at the University of South Africa (UNISA) and a professor in auditing at the University of Pretoria (UP), where she was also the co-ordinator of the internationally accredited Centre of Internal Audit Excellence.

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Academia needs to adapt
“Critical thinking cannot be replaced with AI, but much of the routine part of auditing can,” Philna says. “It’s already happening internationally and it’s not long before we will start to see that in South Africa too.”

She believes that universities need to adapt the way they prepare students for the workplace to avoid becoming outdated, moving from “lecturing” towards “training”, prioritising critical thinking skills. She also believes the focus may need to shift from quantity to quality in terms of turning out graduates who can add real value in the workplace.

“We have these big classes at universities – sometimes 300 students in a class – and there’s no way you can interact with each person then,” she says. “We keep saying that the profession requires scarce skills, but I question whether that’s true. Many accountants and auditors are still struggling to find jobs. Maybe we should be focusing on quality, rather than quantity, the way they do in other professions.”

As an example, she cites UP’s physiotherapy department, which has an intake of only 20 students per year. “All of those people find jobs when they finish their qualifications and enter the workplace,” says Philna.

She says another issue is that academia is slow-moving and struggling to keep up with the rapid pace of technological change, and that in many instances, academic lecturers lack experience. The biggest change needed, in her opinion, is to rethink how teaching happens at universities.

“We need to move away from lecturing towards facilitating learning,” she says. “When we talk about transformation of the profession, we need to also talk about transforming learning.”
In her own work, she consistently engages with practitioners in the industry to understand the skills gaps they are dealing with in placing young professionals, using their feedback to help shape curricula. “I ask them, ‘What do you need from graduates? What skills are you looking for? What are the problems you have?’ and then we work with them to understand how we can deliver these things through our programmes,” she explains.

Ideally, critical thinking skills should be taught in the basic education system, but while this continues to be a problem, Philna suggests that academic institutions need to consider bridging courses and other interventions to help students navigate the change from school to university.

“If you look at institutions in the US, and you take their honours level students and South African honours students, we are actually a bit ahead of them, but the one thing they really get right is that in first year, along with basic courses (for example, the first-year accounting courses), students also do all these life skills courses,” she says. “These really do assist students with coping with academia better. Everyone talks about our poor first-year fallout rates, but that is really because the gap between school and university is huge. Young people are not stupid – they just need the right guidance and a balance of helping them and throwing them into the deep end. I think bridging courses can help with that.”

The value of research
Philna says that within the field of accounting sciences, there is a very low rate of people pursuing master’s or doctoral degrees in South Africa. “What I’ve learned in my 35 years in academia is that research is the one tool a person can use to completely change their world,” she says.

She believes that while research is often considered valuable only for those wanting to pursue academic careers, it has real-world industry applications. For example, she has encouraged her master’s students who need to “sell” an idea to their audit committee to focus on research to inform their pitches, which has a higher success rate. “When you go with all the facts behind your idea, you have a much better chance of it being accepted,” she says.

Furthermore, research makes one think differently and act more strategically. “We need more CFOs with master’s and doctorate qualifications because it will help in our aim of transforming the profession,” she says. “It’s a two-way street too – academia can teach practitioners things they don’t know, and they can teach academics things we don’t know. It benefits both.”

She adds that the qualification itself is not where the value lies. “The real value is in the journey. It really helps to unlock critical skills and shapes you as a person.”
While MBA degrees remain the most popular choice, Philna encourages finance professionals to consider other alternatives too. “Do your MBA, and then do your doctorate,” she enthuses. “It gives you the opportunity to think more deeply about the research element, and we need that in the profession.”

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