I think that's also where SMU became very different. Well we have a 4-year accountancy program, versus a 3-year accountancy program in other universities. So why do our students spend one more year? So how then do we place them as valued employees with the Big 4, the big accounting firms in Singapore? So we had a deep conversation with them. And you know the accounting industry, the Big 4, came together and they agreed on certain things. So we brought them back to the table and asked, What is your major need? And we want to make internship compulsory and we are offering you these kids for 10 weeks against 8 weeks, which was currently practiced. So they told us what they didn't like, Please don't send me anymore interns during your summer break because that's the lull period for the accounting industry. We don't need more hands. And they are not learning much. If you want to give them the deep dive, come in when it is our peak period and we can use them, we can really test them and they can really contribute. So when's your peak-period? December to February/ March That's during term time. How could we send our students there?
So beside the all-rounded program that we give our accountancy students, we needed to meet the needs of the employers. Some universities were already supplying our needs for that summer period. We don't need more.
So I had a deep conversation with the (then) Dean (of Accountancy). Here's our issue. What can we do about this? Can we make some adjustments to the curriculum, to the calendar so that your students will get an extraordinary, real-life, deep-dive into their accounting industry? And that would also mean that they would get first offers for jobs if they did well. So is there any possibility of shifting the term? Making some adjustments?
It was really difficult. You had to move the curriculum and the Registrar's Office. You had to move the instructors. Who would want to teach during a modified term? And then you have to tell the students that there's going to be some changes to their lives:[You can't go (on holiday) with the other students. You come (back) to term when people are already having holidays.] So we sat down and I am really grateful to (Prof Pang) Yang Hoong, the Dean of the Accounting School. She said, We will do something. So she had conversations with her faculty. I think these were really great professors who understood the need to serve the community as well. They agreed that we will do a modified term so that we can release our students for the peak-period in the accounting industry, for them to have a deep-dive into the attachments. And the students, who did well, would get the first jobs. And they (did) get job offers, and they know what it takes, and they get to be in the front of their bosses, their potential bosses. So if they're really good, they get picked up very easily because they are doing real work. So, I think, kudos to the Accountancy School and to the Dean. They sacrificed for the good of the students.
My first appointment, if I recollect, was in October of 2000. I still remember two or three weeks into the term, Professor Janice Bellace called me and said, “Got something different for you to do. You’ve got to start preparing to mount the new programme.” And I was thinking, you know, there are seven of us accounting faculty in the accounting school, why me? I actually asked her that and she said, “Well I look at the CV [curriculum vitae] of the seven of you there and looking at the CV, I think you are the most appropriate.” So, so she said, you know, you are appointed. So I started. (laughter)
You get opportunities to do these internships and we had already set up our internship system where students apply for internships that they want. I’ll tell them that here we don’t assign you to an internship like they do in the other university. You apply for the internship you want, you get into the company, it’s like doing a job interview and it’s like getting a job. And when you do an internship well, there is an opportunity for a job at the end of that. And many students took that challenge and so even though we were four years versus three years, we had no lack of applicants and students come into the programme and they actually enjoy what they do and I would say that the students actually are our best salespeople. Over the years, when I’ve done interviews, I have found so many applying to us who applied to us because they said—my brother is in the programme, my sister has gone through the programme, or my cousin has gone through the programme, or my friend has gone through the programme. And what we need is to make sure that we give a very good educational experience to our existing students. They enjoy, they find that they learn from the programme and they are the ones that are most effective at selling the programme, you know, to their friends and to their siblings and so on.
In line with the fact that when we were developing the business curriculum, that it would be unique compared to the other two universities, so in the same way, the accounting programme had to be unique compared to at that time, only competitor, NTU. So I was very mindful of the fact that at the time when we started, the NTU programme was at least 35 years old. And we were going to be a new kid on the block, and for the accounting programme to succeed, we had to offer something different and something tangible. So one of the first things that we, that I felt we had to do, was to make sure that by the time we start taking in students into our programme, the students must be assured that the programme is accredited by the Singapore regulators so that they can practice in Singapore.
So when I drew up the accountancy curriculum, I actually looked at what was done in NTU. At that time, of course, I was very familiar with that and then the accounting faculty that were part of the start-up team helped me to brainstorm and we were looking at what were the features of the NTU programme that we liked and then what were the features of the NTU programme that we didn’t like. And then based on that we decided that we were going to draw up our curriculum to make sure that we incorporate features of NTU programme that we liked and then we were going to leave out those things that we didn’t like and then we were going to bring in additional qualities which the NTU local graduates we feel did not have. So I spent probably about one month developing a draft of the curriculum. And there were two people on the start up team that were very helpful in helping me to draw up the curriculum and that was Leong Kwong Sin and Michael Gan.
And so we had the first draft of our curriculum and then we knocked on the doors of major accounting employers. We went to the, at that time there were five accounting, we call them the Big Five. So we were knocking on the doors of all the Big Five and we met with the audit partners, the tax partners of these firms and we did our presentation on, you know, our curriculum, what we wanted to cover in there. We even had course syllabus, syllabi of the various topics we wanted to cover and then we invited employers’ feedback on the curriculum and we also asked them, what do they think local graduates are strong at, what did they think local graduates lacked? And so feedback from them were very useful, like they will tell us that local graduates, local accounting graduates, are technically very proficient but they are not as confident, they are not as articulate, they are not quite able to see the big picture, you know, compared to foreign graduates, for example, they are not as able to voice their opinion and so on. So we took all of those feedback and then we made sure that we incorporated them into our curriculum.
And when we were done with that, then we applied to the Institute of [Certified] Public Accountants of Singapore [ICPAS] for accreditation and we also applied to at that time, the Public Accountants Board [PNB] for accreditation of our programme. The accreditation from the Institute of Certified Public Accountants of Singapore were obtained just before we launched the programme. And they were actually very reluctant to do so because they said that, “Nobody accredits a programme that is not yet in existence.” And they said, “You should be running for a while first before we consider accreditation.” And what I said to them was, “I can’t afford to run for a while first before I get accredited, I must be accredited now.” And I gave them assurance about the fact that we had sought employers’ feedback and so on and in the process of seeking employers’ feedback, we actually also invited employers to play a part in helping us to train students.
So it was a, a concerted strategy to invite, for example, partners from the Big Four to come and teach courses that are very practice oriented. Because the proposition we had for them was that, we have our faculty who are trained in top universities and so they have all of the academic knowledge but they have the practical experience and they can bring those into the classroom so that all of those knowledge are passed on to our students as soon as they become relevant. If we wait for them to go into the textbooks, then by the time our faculty teach all of those topics, they are at least three, four years out of date. And so we actually had employers’ buy in, and that’s why we’ve always had adjunct faculty who teach things like tax, who teach things like audit, so when I explain this to the institute, they said, “Okay, I will give you provisional accreditation.” And that means for the next two, three years, I had to send in yearly reports of our students’ progress; I had to send in reports showing the quality intake of our students; the qualification of our faculty members; I had to send in course outlines, sample exam papers, student exam results and so on. So I did that for two years and then when they looked at that and then they said that, after two years they said, “Oh, you are okay, so you are accredited.” And so from day one we were able to tell applicants that if you come into our programme, you are accredited like the NTU programme. So that was quite helpful in that, actually the very first cohort of accounting students who applied into our programme were already quite good.
And at that time, the business programme was in its second year and accounting programme was in the first year and we had our share of really outstanding students and that was first year of our programme. And I think it was because of the fact that we make sure that we had employers’ buy in, so we had the employers saying that we support the programme. And I think that was a very, very important step that we took. And that made sure that from day one as far as our accounting programme is concerned; we never had quality issues as far as students are concerned.
And so by the time we launched accountancy degree, the agreement with the business school to offer double degrees was already there. So when we offered our accountancy programme in 2001, there were students from the business school who actually applied for accountancy as a second degree. So we had in that first cohort of accountancy students about ten business students who applied for accountancy as a second degree. And the accounting students who came, a lot of them also came because of all the visits that we made to the various junior colleges to explain our programme. So the first cohort that we took in, we took in about 80 students.
The first, the first cohort of graduates from the programme, the majority of them went to the Big Four because that was how we started. We had the employers from there come into our classes to teach as adjunct and then we tell them, you have the best opportunity to sell your firm, your organisation to the students, and then you invite them to your internship and to work with you, and so with the first cohort of accountancy students, about 80% of them went to the Big Five [should be Big Four] at that time and only about 20% would join MNCs [multinational corporations] and so on. But as our cohort increase in size and the quality also increased over time, we find that increasingly the foreign banks have been attracting them to go on internships, and so over time more of our outstanding students have been going to investment banking, they have been going to join also international consulting firms, many of them have gone into management associate programmes with the MNCs and so on. And today about half of our students will join the Big Four and then over 30% of them would join the finance and banking industry and then the other 20% will join other MNCs.
And then also looking at the jobs that our graduates took up, if we look at the starting salaries of accountancy graduates across the three universities, SMU accountancy graduates had a very significantly higher starting salaries compared to graduates from NUS and NTU. And to me this shows that at the time when employers are very selective about hiring graduates, and I was told that in 2009, a lot of firms were only hiring for replacement, it is quite clear that even when they are hiring along those selective basis, SMU accountancy graduates are still the graduates of choice among these employers, and the fact that there are few jobs around and yet those jobs went to our accountancy graduates, I think shows that our grads are quite resilient, our graduates are able to stand their own even when the market is not so good.
I think also the fact that many of our graduates, not only do a second degree, but a lot of them also do a double major, right, and that means that they not only are conversant in the discipline that they specialise in, they also are conversant in another discipline outside of their specialisation, and that makes them a lot more versatile when it comes to job selection.
And then another feature of our graduates is the fact that many of them have an overseas exposure. In accountancy school, easily over one-third of our students would go on overseas exchange or they would go for overseas community service or business study trip and so on, so they come back and they have more international exposure and that gives them a more international outlook and it helps them to stand out when they go for job interviews. That is also one aspect that makes them different.
And then finally to me a very important differentiating factor is the fact that in SMU a lot of our students take internship very seriously. You know in the other universities, in NUS for example, it’s not compulsory, internship is voluntary. In NTU students are assigned to a particular firm to do internship for eight weeks. But in SMU, students apply, they look at the firms and decide which one they want to intern at and then they apply and if they get chosen, they go. For our accounting students, most of them I would say, almost everyone would do a minimum of two internships. I usually tell them, you go to an accounting firm and then you go to one other internship outside of an accounting firm and many, many students when I look at their profile, they have done between two to six internships and that gives them a pretty good idea about what jobs are like and what jobs they think they will fit in better because they have interned at some of these places.
And so I think if you look at the type of holistic education we provide in SMU, we prepare our students to enter the workforce quite seamlessly. And a lot of them by the time they start their first job they feel like actually this could be my third or fourth job because they would already have interned in a few companies already. And I think that gives them an edge when they are looking for a job. And I think probably that is why in the last global financial crisis, our graduates didn’t have much difficulty looking for a job.
And I still remember in the first term of the Intro Accounting, Financial Accounting class taught by Professor Gan and when you talk to him, he can tell you more about it. But he had set a project for students to examine the financial statement of a listed company and to give a recommendation as to whether or not you would recommend investing in that company and then he told students that our pedagogy is different, you can do your presentation in any way you like. And there was one group of students who did the presentation using a skit. And the student had looked at the financial statement of Singapore Airlines, SIA, and at that time our chairman [of the board] was also a director of SIA. And so they were using in the skit, they had a cleaner talking to a, I think it was a, someone not very educated about investing in a company—and what does a financial statement mean and what, what is the meaning of assets, what is the meaning of liability, what do those ratios mean and how to read a set of financial statement—to see what it means if you don’t understand accounting. So they were looking at that and then they talk to accounting student at SMU. Accounting student have studied some financial accounting and so tried to explain these concepts. And then even said that our chairman, chairman of SMU is also a director of this company so I think it’s very safe for you to invest in SIA and so on. So the way they did it was really quite interesting and so Prof Gan arranged for the students to do the skit again for, at that time was President Ron Frank, so President Ron Frank and Provost Tan Chin Tiong were invited to view this and they liked it so much, they said when we have our open house we like you to do it for the students at the next open house.
And so when the open house, when we had open house the next March, those students went and did that again and I think they were so willing to do it and they were enjoying themselves so much, I think they did it for two or three groups of students that came to listen during the open house in that one day and that was something to me really quite memorable because it showed us that when you have a new group of students and you want them to do something new and you tell them the pedagogy is new they really go all out to do something different. And that was how we…how I felt, you know, the accounting school started with a group of students that really paved the way for the succeeding group of students to carry on with that, with that very, very innovative approach to learning which we still have today.
Research, we started off with no research faculty, right, because the start-up team that came and joined the accountancy school, they were all administrators and teachers, and so we had no research faculty. And the way we started was that we went and we attended the American Accounting Association annual meetings and we went to those meetings and we met with PhD students who were about to graduate and were looking for a job and we actually approached them one by one. And we sold them SMU and our new programme and so on and then we invited them for campus visits. And the first two research faculty came to us, both were Asians. One was a Korean who was trained at University of Illinois. University of Illinois is actually ranked number one in accounting in the US. And he wanted to be in Asia so then I realised the way to get research faculty to join us is to find those who like to be in Asia.
So we started with two and then the two faculty then help us to recruit others. And so over time, from the two, we have now increase to about, currently we have thirteen. And all the faculty that we hired, they were just rookies, just fresh out of the PhD and it was really difficult to develop, for them to develop because we had no senior faculty. And also to be published in the top journals in accounting, a lot of rookie faculty prefer to stay in the US because the journals are in the US, the reviewers are in the US and all the conferences and the workshops to go to are in the US. So it was a big challenge for us to develop all these junior faculty.
And so we had to be very supportive in terms of allowing our faculty to go on overseas conferences, to present their papers at workshops and so on. In the early years, I actually didn’t even limit the number of conferences that our research faculty could go to. I just told them as long as your paper is accepted at a good conference, we will fund you, you go. So they went. And then they had a good experience, they talk to their friends and more faculty joined us.
And in order to try to allow them to have exposure to senior faculty, we invited senior faculty to come for short visits. There were, in the early days, there were two or three faculty who were available on a one-year sabbatical so we invited them to spend one year with us. These were the avenues for our junior faculty to have interaction with senior faculty. And then in 2005, we managed to hire a chaired professor from University of Illinois, who joined us and became our associate dean for research. And with him joining us and he being an internationally renowned researcher, we were able to hire more faculty plus bring in a lot of the top researchers to visit us for short periods of time. And in the last three to four years, the research output in our school has actually gone up tremendously. And in fact, last year we were ranked tenth in the world for accounting research in a survey that was published by the Accounting Review. For then that was a school that is nine years old.