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It is common knowledge that the recent global financial crisis was caused largely by immoral, unethical and greedy money managers. A sense of professionalism would have prevented such a disaster, which makes professional certification all the more important for students of finance. Two experts speak on how a university degree and a professional qualification can combine to produce more rounded, disciplined and employable graduates.

Human error was largely to blame for the recent global financial crisis, regardless of whether the people in charge ought to have known better or simply did not know better. Some would say those in charge were blinded by dollar signs or simply lacked the ability to see the macro story that was developing from the circumstances.

UCSI University in Malaysia plans to at least tackle the latter half of the problem by setting up a UCSI Professional Academy (UPA) where students can obtain professional certification. The Chartered Institute of Management of Accountants (CIMA) and UPA recently signed a memorandum of understanding in a unique collaboration to offer the CIMA Certificate in Islamic Finance as well as CIMA accounting courses at the academy.

Dr Robert Jelly, executive director of education of CIMA, and Sudesh Balasubramaniam, general manager of the academy, talk about how obtaining a traditional degree and professional certification will ensure better trained students who have a more holistic view of finance.

Elaine Lau: How has the education industry traditionally viewed professional qualifications, and how has that changed today?
Dr Robert Jelly: It has come full circle. I’ve been on both sides. I was formerly head of Dundee Business School … I think the key difference has been — and it’s not simply Malaysia — that university education is absolutely critical in someone’s lifetime development but there are certain things that university education can and can’t do. That’s demonstrated by the fact that a lot of Malaysian employers say they find graduates on their own not particularly practical. This is not unique to Malaysia; even employers in the UK and India are saying grads are unemployed because they have an inability to convert theory into practice. That’s what life in university is all about — challenging theory, looking at the next big thing.

Professional education is different in a number of ways. It’s much more applied, and certainly CIMA is. Not all professional bodies are. But we’re very much about preparing people for work or if they’re in work, to improve their skills and thus their careers. That’s one thing. The second thing is that professional bodies, unlike universities, have an ethical or disciplinary code that their members have to comply with. To use my own example, I have both university degrees and a professional qualification. Two are from Scottish universities and no one can take those degrees away from me. I can go on to be as unethical and immoral as I like, and my university cannot remove those from me. However, my professional body can. And that’s important to us. The recent financial crisis … was largely caused by people being immoral, unethical and greedy. To prevent that, you need discipline and that’s what professionalism provides. It’s not that universities do not provide it, but professionalism, ethical moral behaviour comes after a level of maturity and experience.

Those are the two key differences. And I think what happened here, even for my time 20 years ago, professional qualification was the norm because the university sector was relatively underdeveloped. As the university sector developed, large portions of people were doing degrees and because it takes a long time to both study a degree and then do a professional qualification, professional qualifications actually went out of favour. And I think it’s coming full circle, but quite rightly, after a graduate qualification. Because universities can do things that we cannot do in CIMA and we’re very much about taking all that knowledge and understanding, adding different, higher-level skills, particularly applied skills.

Why did UCSI decide to form this partnership with CIMA?
Sudesh Balasubramaniam: At UCSI University, at the faculty of management and IT, we conduct two degree programmes that are related to management and finance. Traditionally, it has been following a mode whereby students complete three years and we confer a degree in accounting or accounting finance. Most often, when they eventually work in the finance industry, there is a necessity for them to be linked up with professional bodies because that may be a route for chartered accountancy and various other things. In a way, we are looking at a 3+1 scenario for our students, with CIMA in the picture. We see a continuation of their pathway after completing their degree with the relevant examinations and mapping of courses conferred by CIMA. That’s where UCSI Professional Academy comes into place. It’s a subsidiary set up by UCSI to look into this need of our students.

Another area UCSI is looking at is the employability of our students globally. We have students from over 70 nations, a lot of them other than international students also go overseas to work. We feel that arming them with this sort of globally recognised qualification will give them an edge, a cap beyond their training provided in the degree itself.

What is unique about this partnership?
Jelly: What’s unique about this relationship, it will be the first partnership in Malaysia where we offer face-to-face CIMA training and also Islamic finance training … This is the second face-to-face provider in the world; we have another one in Hong Kong.

Sudesh: From a university’s perspective, we also see this as an opportunity to provide lifelong learning for our graduates. Once they graduate, they can do various things in terms of how they can continue to acquire knowledge as demanded by the employment sector and so on. As you can see, CIMA provides that sort of opportunity for our students in the form of CPD (continuing professional development).

Of course, in terms of the UCSI Professional Academy, it’s not just to serve our students but also open up to professionals out there who are not necessarily our students to come and enrol and take up professional classes such as CIMA.

Who would go for a CIMA certification? Is it just for accountants?
Jelly: No, in fact it’s just the opposite. What we’re aiming to do is essentially train finance professionals who can become business leaders. What makes CIMA unique is we’re a fusion, a blend of accounting, finance and management. Employers find that quite unique. We’re training finance professionals to work in business or government; we’re not training auditors or those who specialise in financial reporting. In a nutshell, we’re training people to add value to their business, to help the business grow and to sustain the business in every sense of the word.

Our history is interesting. We were formed in 1919, by the person who founded Unilever. The reason he founded CIMA was that people who were trained accountants tended to look backwards. They’re very important but they would look backwards and say all the money in the company has been used appropriately. CIMA members look forward — they’re very much about the future, company strategy, how those strategies are implemented … in business and government, we believe it’s CIMA members they want because they have differently honed skills from the conventional accountant. And that’s why we’re so happy UCSI is joining us in this partnership.

We have 80,000 members worldwide. When we look at the jobs they have, some are management accountants, some are CFOs, some are CEOs. But many of them have very interesting titles like director of innovation, director of performance management. They’re not boxed into a career in accounting as such. Many of them stay in the finance sector but with the qualification, they’re more rounded. A big proportion of one of our exam papers involves project management — we have that coverage because employers tell us that’s how they’re using finance professionals now. They’re out helping the business, working in project teams with engineers or marketing people. I visited Proton recently. The finance professionals are sitting in a room with the marketers, with the people setting the prices, looking at the quality, what goes in or what does not go into a car. That’s the exciting part of management accounting.

How has the CIMA certification been modified since the onset of the financial crisis to better deal with the changing landscape of the financial world? What has been done to retool this certification?
Jelly: We do a lot of global benchmarking. We update the CIMA qualification more regularly than any other body — every four years. We’ve only been doing this since 2004 when we changed the way we update the qualification. So every four years, we use an independent organisation, normally a university with a strong research background, to undertake research globally with employers. We ask employers in major countries of the world, including Malaysia, how skills are changing. We have a whole range of topics and skills that we ask employers to rank and each time we go out to do research, to rerank them and to anticipate in three to five years’ time how they think that will change. For example, in our 2000 syllabus, there was very little about risk management. When we came to 2004 and undertook this research, suddenly risk management jumped from almost nowhere to very near the top. As a result of that response, we were the first professional accounting body in the world to introduce a dedicated risk and control strategy paper.

Going forward, where do you see this partnership heading?
Sudesh: Eventually, we’re looking at working with CIMA to incorporate this into our degree programme itself as an option for students.

This article appeared in Options, the lifestyle pullout of The Edge Malaysia, Issue 826 , Oct 4-10, 2010

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