Exploring institutional isomorphism at professional accounting programmes
Short, George Sebastian
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The aim, and principal objective, of this study was to explore and document the phenomenon of institutional isomorphism at professional accounting schools at universities in South Africa (hereafter referred to as “accounting schools”), from the perspective of institutional theory. It should be noted that this study, being a phenomenological research effort, was based on the idiosyncratic construction of the lived experiences of a relatively limited number of participations, and not on the generalised reduction of a larger population group. Following a phenomenological research approach, a comprehensive study of research literature relating to the phenomenon was conducted to construct a theoretical framework of institutional theory, professions, universities and the concept of power. In addition, a literature study was done on the accounting profession in South Africa from a historical context, the interrelation between the accounting profession and universities in South Africa and, as indication of its legitimacy, notable instances of criticism recorded against the accounting profession in South Africa. Data was collected by way of obtaining responses from 11 participants - mainly through semi-structured interviews - of whom eight are currently academics at accounting schools, two are international academics and one participant who could provide a more objective perspective regarding the relationship between SAICA and accounting schools at South African universities. An analysis of documents and textual data provided additional data on inter alia the curricular composition of a selection of accounting degree offerings at South African and international universities; the professional qualifications of academics from two accounting schools, the SAICA framework for accrediting accounting degree programmes and the current professional syllabi of SAICA and CIMA. Based on the phenomenological analysis performed, five distinct themes to the phenomenon explored were identified: the accreditation by professional accounting bodies of accounting schools; the curricular composition of accounting degree offerings at South African universities; the appointment of accounting academics at South African universities by virtue of their professional qualification, as opposed to academic qualifications; the examinations of professional accounting bodies, as attempted by students from accredited accounting schools; and research practices by academics at accounting schools. This study concluded that, although accreditation to SAICA is sought voluntarily, due to its unique education model and dominance in the South African professional accounting field, some participants to the study deemed it unviable not to be accredited at SAICA, which ultimately led to conforming behaviour amongst accredited accounting schools in homogenised and isomorphic practices. This isomorphic behaviour is further entrenched by the deemed importance (as regarded by several of the participants to this study) of the results of the SAICA ITC examinations, seemingly as a measure of a respective accounting school’s quality of education and the legitimacy attributed to it. In respect of the curricular alignment of degree offerings by accounting schools to the professional syllabi of professional accounting bodies, the assimilation of behaviour due to the pressure that the participants to the study experienced in respect of the accreditation to SAICA was interpreted as being coercive in nature. In contrast the assimilated curricular adjustments implemented by several accounting schools in South Africa - in response to the professional syllabus change by CIMA in 2019 – was interpreted as normative in nature, as the respective accounting schools were at ease with, but not necessarily obliged, to adapt to the professional syllabus set by CIMA. The appointment of accounting academics at South African universities by virtue of their professional qualification, as opposed to academic qualifications, cannot be attributed to a coercive relationship between professional accounting bodies and accounting schools at South African universities, but can rather be ascribed to mimetic isomorphism amongst these schools. Furthermore, whereas a perceived lack of involvement by South African accounting academics in research activities, could also not be attributed to a coercive relationship between professional accounting bodies and accounting schools, but rather as a result of resource allocation in favour of an emphasis placed on teaching and the focus of these accounting schools to yield successful results in professional accounting examinations, the seeming - although slow - isomorphic shift towards a higher research focus amongst accounting schools at South African universities could be regarded as mimetic in nature.