The purpose of this inaugural address is to consider the state of accounting as an academic discipline within South Africa’s higher education landscape, and the responsibility that brings to deliver graduates who are able to function effectively from the moment they enter the business world. Drawing on legitimacy theory, activities of the universities of today are focussed on and by society’s demands. Academic accounting in South Africa, and elsewhere, is furthermore influenced by the nationally recognised professional accounting bodies, an influence manifesting as tension between the need for “training” (for immediate and efficient absorption into the workforce) and “educating” (for a more contemplative life). This tension, plus the additional business-world attributes new accounting graduates are now expected to possess, and national objectives of transformation within academia and business, together have resulted in accounting departments in South Africa becoming teaching-intensive institutions (with a “designed-for-business” product), as opposed to places where knowledge is created, which is/was the core aspect of a research-focused university. Should South African universities offering professional accounting programmes meet their constituents’ transformation expectations to redress imbalances of the past by developing competent graduates from disadvantaged communities, closure within the South African accounting profession will be reversed. Simultaneously, our society’s demands that universities develop human and institutional capacity (an imperative for a developing economy), so as to alleviate pressures of scarce and critical skills, will then also be met. But the question still remains: are the needs that society has currently identified and voiced for itself in its longer-term best interests? Put another way: is the development of essentially vocational skills, and the effecting of social and economic transformation, being achieved at the expense of knowledge creation and the stimulation of critical, independent thought?
Text of inaugural address by Prof. Karin Barac, Department of Auditing on 12 November 2013