THE BLOG
14/05/2018 13:55 SAST | Updated 14/05/2018 13:55 SAST

Have Scandals Left Any Value In The BComm Accounting Degree?

The accounting field has never been more of a persona non-grata than it is now.

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Graduation is such an important occasion for many students and their loved ones. It's the culmination of them all "conquering" many troubled moments that seemed to take an eternity. University is one of the most psychologically challenging places to be.

This is especially true for the poor underprivileged black child, who has to consistently deal with myriad additional issues from accommodation to funding and inadequacy of resources. This is not to say that other students across racial, religious, gender groupings do not face the same issues and possibly more, but with the poor black child, these are amplified.

It is then no surprise that loved ones travel the length and breadth of the country, continent and at times the globe to share and experience this moment. Tears of jubilation are the order of the day as each graduate, relative and friend ponders the three-year journey (sometimes more) leading up to this moment: the sacrifices made, the people lost along the way, the lessons learnt and the many memories and experiences shared.

It was such a joy seeing many of my friends, some of whom I've known since high school, cross the stage and get their 10 seconds of fame. Yet at that moment, I was overcome with an uneasiness.

Youth unemployment is one of the greatest challengies in this country. It is probably one of the most discussed topics, but no practical action is taken towards trying to solve it, or at least bring it down from the staggering 26.7 percent it stands at now.

The accounting fraternity is dogged by scandals upon scandal, and all public trust has been eroded to record lows.

As a BComm Accounting student, my concern was especially with my colleagues who had just become graduates. These were the next breed of auditors, chartered accountants and management accountants. A breed of hopeful people walking into what should be a prestigious career driven by high ethical and professional standards. This ideal is what carried so many of these graduates through the gruelling university experience.

However, the sad truth is how far from reality that ideal is. The accounting fraternity is dogged by scandal upon scandal, and all public trust has been eroded. The accounting field has never been more persona non-grata than it is now.

Internet searches of the global "big four", accounting and auditing firms such as KPMG and PriceWaterhouseCoopers [PWC], reveal just how much the ethical and professional standards as per the SAICA Code of Professional Standards have fallen — particularly the fundamental principles of integrity, objectivity, professional competence and due care, confidentiality and professional behaviour — in the name of securing future revenue streams from large clients.

KPMG, especially the South African branch, is perhaps the most infamous of the big four in the country right now. It features in much of the #StateCapture debacle, a graft scheme of arms-dealproportions. Between the questionable ethical and legal transactions the firm has been found to be party to, one could be forgiven for thinking KPMG is an enabler of graft rather than a deterrent thereto.

The Estina dairy project in Vrede, Free State, the SARS Rogue Unit report, the VBS Mutual Bank saga,and so on. It's not just here they have fallen short. Internationally the FIFA scandal in Switzerland and bribery claims in India are two that leap to mind.

Small firms are not immune to this scourge either. Black-owned Nkonki Incorporated was recently exposed for dubious accounting practicesin relation to ownership funding — tantamount to clients "buying themselves an auditor", prompting the Auditor-General to cut all ties with them. The company is being wound up as we speak, due to the loss of revenue and reputational damage.

What is the future of the many accounting students and graduates who entered the accounting field to plug South Africa's short supply of chartered accountants and auditors?

PWC is another with a share of troubles, both locallyand internationally. While I have only referred to two of the big four, it's fair to say that this alone means that the accounting field faces troubled waters and is nowhere near redemption in the eyes of the public.

Moreover, this lack of ethics and professional standards has intersected with the law field, as evidenced in the behaviour of Hogan Lovells in the handling of embattled SARS executive Jonas Makwakwa's disciplinary procedure.

The decisive leadership that would have been expected from regulatory bodies the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants [Saica] and the Independent Regulatory Board for Auditors [IRBA], is incredibly absent. Both these bodies found themselves being reactive instead of proactive, and both acted after the public outcry.

All these events have me wondering whether a BComm Accounting degree is worth the paper it's written on.

What is the future of the many accounting students and graduates who entered the accounting field to plug South Africa's short supply of chartered accountants and auditors? What about the phrase "the world is your oyster as a CA" that has carried so many through their struggles? Have all the sacrifice been for nought?

What is the future of business globally, when these accountants and auditors, who play such a critical role in the operations and governance of companies, turn a blind eye to graft? What happens to the public, who rely extensively on the accounting fraternity to enforce the founding principles of democracy such as accountability, if that it folds to corruption?

Perhaps the overarching theme in all of these questions is, "Who looks after the sheep, when the shepherds are the ones leading the wolves into the pen?"