Just as you thought you were coming to grips with your qualification journey and what it requires from you in the future, a change is about to be implemented that will change some of the steps in that journey!
From 2014, the second Board Exam to qualify as a CA will be changing. This will affect your exam preparation and this should be kept in mind while you’re studying at all levels. This article is intended to explain what the new exam will look like, consist of, how it will work and how it will be marked.
Currently, there are two different second Board Exams:
- Qualifying Exam 2 (QE2):
- This is for candidates who have Financial Management as an elective rather than Auditing for their articles (this used to be known as the TOPP route)
- This exam is set by SAICA
- Public Practice Exam (PPE)
- This is for candidates who have Auditing as an elective for their articles (this used to be known as the TIPP route)
- This exam is set by IRBA
So what is the new exam?
From 2014, the second Board Exam will be called the Assessment of Professional Competence (APC). This is to follow from the first board exam, which changed from QE1 to Initial Test of Competence (ITC) in 2012.
The APC exam will be set by SAICA, and will be written by ALL candidates, regardless of the electives within their training contract. Thus, trainee clerks doing Financial Management articles will write the same exam as those doing Audit articles.
What is examinable within the APC?
SAICA has a document listing and explaining the academic requirements for those wishing to join the CA profession. This is the document that Universities use to set their CTA syllabus and make sure students are examined on topics and at levels appropriate to ensure they will pass ITC. This document is called “Competency Framework Detailed Guidance for Academic Programmes” and is available on the SAICA website. (Refer: https://www.saica.co.za/LearnersStudents/Examinations/Informationonwhatwillbeexamined/tabid/486/language/en-ZA/Default.aspx)
Since all candidates are writing the same exam, this means that all subjects that were examinable for ITC will be examinable within the APC. Thus, all the components of the above-mentioned document will be examinable.
For your convenience, I’ve documented the specific competencies within the document:
- Strategy; Risk Management and Governance
- Accounting and External Reporting
- Auditing and Assurance
- Financial Management
- Management Decision Making and Control
One of the competencies in this document often overlooked by students is the section called “Pervasive Qualities and Skills”. This includes the following components:
- Ethical Behaviour and Professionalism
- Personal Attributes
- Professional Skills
The difference between the ITC and the APC will be that the APC will focus on the Professional Skills within the document, while the ITC focuses on the technical competencies. (I will discuss these Pervasive Competencies in a later article)
Technical vs Professional Competence
There is a subtle difference between a question examining technical or professional competencies.
Technical question: Calculate the valuation for a company
Professional question: Advise management on whether they should sell the company, based on the valuation
Although both questions require a level of underlying technical knowledge, the professional focus examines what the CA will do with the calculation, and how to add value to the client. A calculation is meaningless unless the CA can interpret, understand, evaluate and advise on the result.
How will the exam work?
The case study will be distributed to the candidates five days before the exam itself. This is to allow the candidate time to research the Legislation, Standards and information relevant to the case study, the industry and specific information given. This is more of a simulation of a real-world scenario in that a CA will have time to prepare for an assignment, get information, assistance, advice and research the issues relating to a client instead of being put on the spot and having to know EVERYTHING in order to answer one thing.
This will remove the necessity for candidates to know EVERY topic, Standard and theory. Instead, they will have time to really understand the issues relating to the specific case study.
Candidates will be allowed to bring in to the exam an A4, Lever Arch File containing any research, journals, calculations, notes etc, that they prepared in advance; along with the usual reference books (SAICA Handbooks, legislation etc). Again, this is to remove the focus from technical theory, and place the emphasis rather on what you would DO with the information you have.
The questions will be distributed on the day of the exam. Along with the questions, more information will be given to the candidate. This will be in addition to the case study, and will represent new information. The intention here is to assess how well a candidate is able to deal with information given to them on the spot.
How long is the exam?
The exam will be set as a five-hour paper. This means that a good candidate should complete the paper in five hours. The candidates, however, will be given eight hours to complete the exam.
This means that the time pressure faced by students in CTA and ITC will fall away. At the moment, the time pressure built into most exams cause a lot of stress for the students, and the fact that a student may not work ‘fast enough’ may be the reason that they fail. At this level of your professional career, it is more important that you are capable of achieving the task than how fast you do it, thus the removal of time as a factor in the exam.
You will be allowed to take breaks throughout the exam, (with limitations placed on where you can go, who you can talk to, etc), so you can structure your exam approach as you feel necessary.
How will the exam be marked?
A major change from the current format is the mark allocation for the exam. The effect of this change should not be underestimated by students, as it will represent a large shift from their study and exam technique.
Unlike other exams, there will be no marks allocated to the questions. The question will give guidance as to the length of the answer expected (eg: Draft a page-long letter) but will not allocate marks.
Instead of marks, the marking will be done on the basis of competencies. For each question, a list of competencies will be used by the markers.
- Candidate performed calculations accurately
- Candidate communicated their response in appropriate depth
- Candidate identified the specific issues from the case study (the issues would obviously be specified in the mark-grid according to the case study)
- Candidate suggested an appropriate response for the client
The markers will assess whether the candidates achieved the competencies, and based on this will evaluate whether the candidate is Competent (pass) or Not Competent (fail). Instead of counting how many competencies a candidate was able to achieve (ie: 5 of the 10, which is how the current marking system works), the marker will assess whether the candidate shows an appropriate level of ability. If we use the above competencies as examples, the fact that the candidate can perform the calculations accurately will not carry as much weight as their ability to identify issues and suggest solutions for the client. (this will also be because the candidate will have had the case study for five days, and would thus be expected to have calculated everything already!)
The competencies assigned and the marking levels for the questions based on the information the candidate only received on the exam day will be weighted accordingly.
This means that a candidate can no longer pass based on the ‘easy marks’, and the goal of getting the minimum amount of marks to pass a question will no longer be appropriate.
Also, (and this is a major shift!) should the candidate write a lot of irrelevant information in their response, the marker may assess them as Not Competent, even though they may have hit relevant points in their solutions, since this indicates that they don’t actually know what they’re doing, they’re just throwing everything on their solution and hoping for the best. This is a definite way to minimise the ‘knowledge dumping’ that lecturers are always complaining about!
Although there will be more professional judgment on behalf of the marker than in the past, there are very strict processes, marking systems and standards in place to ensure fairness (I will not go into detail on that point here) and these processes have been proven to achieve consistency in the marking process.
So why has the exam been changed?
The second Board Exam is seen as the assessment for entry into the profession. In other words, it should be the last assessment to ensure that the candidate is prepared and competent to operate as a CA. It makes sense, therefore, to assess them according in a way that simulates a real-world environment and assignment as much as possible.
This will always be challenging when the assessment is done in the form of the exam, but the processes discussed above that have been included for this exam is as a result of SAICA’s belief that this is the best way to remove ‘exam technique’ from the equation, as this doesn’t indicate a candidates’ ability to perform a task. Their intention is to provide candidates with a task and assess their ability to perform the task, rather than focus on the technical knowledge that the professional would have at their disposal on-the-job.
Is this good or bad for the CA profession?
As a new exam, the APC will be a topic for discussion and contention for quite some time to come! There will be a lot of varying opinions as to the appropriateness of the examination methods and process.
As a lecturer who has long been frustrated by students’ focus on exam technique, formulae and lists of theory to get them through exams, I personally believe that the APC will be a better method of assessing someone’s competence.
Also, students focus predominantly on the technical competencies within the academic framework, while mostly ignoring the professional ones. As an Auditing Lecturer, I have long emphasised the importance of communication and reading skills, problem-solving, non-formulaic approaches and the ability to identify important issues as part of students’ studies since these skills will be absolutely vital in the workplace. The APC will force students to pay more attention to these, and develop these earlier rather than later.
This article is not a comprehensive discussion of all the components and processes of the new exam, but it does give you a better idea of the format, contents and marking differences between the PPE, QE2 and the APC.
If you are still studying undergrad or even CTA, it’s best not to spend too much time debating this, since it will be a little while before you get there, and you will then be able to assess the first few years of the APC implementation. If you will be writing APC in 2014… make sure you properly research all the components and requirements expected of you!