Date posted: 27/05/2024 5 min read

Willing and able

University tax clinics that offer student accounting services to small businesses and not-for-profits are proving game changers in preparing graduates for an accounting career.

Quick take

  • More university students are becoming involved in volunteer tax clinics catering to the accounting needs of small businesses and not-for-profit organisations.
  • Employers like KPMG are reporting that tax clinic graduates emerge from the real-world experience far more skilled and advanced in taking on a greater scope of roles in the workplace.
  • The initiative is now available at 15 Australian universities, including Griffith and UNSW, and through New Zealand’s Massey University.

By John Burfitt

It’s an often-heard comment that a young accountant will learn more about the profession within the first few months being in the job after graduation than they learned in all their years of study at university.

“While a comprehensive understanding of all the principles and theories is essential, practical experience is vital for a young accountant and that’s the gap we’re attempting to fill,” says Professor Brett Freudenberg of the Department of Accounting, Finance and Economics at Queensland’s Griffith University.

Since 2019, Griffith University has run the Griffith Tax Clinic (GTC). It is one of 15 Australian universities offering government-sponsored tax consulting programs conducted by volunteer students. With the guidance of Freudenberg and a mentoring team of chartered accountants and other industry professionals, students consult with a range of small businesses, community organisations and not-for profits.

Similarly, in 2018 the Auckland North Community and Development’s (ANCAD) Auckland Community Accounting program, in conjunction with New Zealand’s Massey University, began a volunteer initiative involving students assisting community organisations with their accounting needs.

“This program exposes young accountants during their training to a level of professionalism they probably haven’t dealt with before and gives them a line of thinking that goes way beyond what they have studied,” says Auckland Community Accounting’s Glen Hill, a retired accountant.

These clinics provide invaluable opportunities for students – ranging from second-year undergraduates through to master’s level – to learn accounting, particularly the tax responsibilities, in the context of the financial reporting requirements faced by smaller entities and the not-for-profit sector.

Hill adds, “It also benefits the organisations they go on to work for, by providing them with students who have been well equipped with a range of skills that means, in some cases, they are ready to step into certain roles and just get to work.”

Griffith Tax Clinic – Queensland, Australia

Professor Brett Freudenberg of the Department of Accounting, Finance and Economics at Queensland’s Griffith University

“While comprehensive understanding of all the principles and theories is essential, practical experience is vital for a young accountant.”
Professor Brett Freudenberg, Griffith University

When it comes to success figures, the GTC offers some impressive ones. In the five years the program has been operating, 122 students have assisted 306 small businesses. They have conducted close to 1000 client meetings, presented almost 100 workshops and lodged 2400 tax returns.

Business and law students are the main cohort involved. Of the students who have worked at the clinic, approximately 40% have gone on to become CAs.

The organisations GTC has worked for includes the NDIS Support Workers, Access Community Services and Lifeline.

“This rich learning environment is so important for students,” Freudenberg says. “While tax as a discipline involves technical knowledge, to be an effective tax practitioner other skills such as communication, teamwork and problem solving are critical – and those are the skills the industry sees lacking in new graduates.

“The tax clinic provides students a work-integrated learning opportunity to improve their skills, as well as enhancing their technical knowledge as they apply theory to practice.”

The client experience

Freudenberg, who previously worked as a senior taxation consultant at KPMG, believes the impact the clinics can have on a graduate’s communication skills can be one of their greatest assets.

“I recall when I was at KPMG, new employees rarely got to ever speak to clients, but here the students are on the frontline dealing with the clients, understanding their knowledge of tax and working out the best process to resolve the client’s issues,” he says.

“It ultimately aids their motivation as to why they are doing an accounting degree. This experience demonstrates all the different aspects of tax and, once they finish working with the clinic, such graduates are far more employable.”

Creating future tax professionals

Hayley Lock CA is KPMG’s lead partner, Workforce Advisory, Queensland, and has been actively involved with the GTC in recent years as a guest lecturer and advisor. She has also employed a number of graduates from the tax clinic program.

“Within my group, last year two-thirds of the people we employed were graduates of the GTC,” she says. “I’m involved with this as I am interested in developing the future tax professionals of our world.”

Lock says that at a time when the accounting profession across both Australia and New Zealand continues to deal with a skills shortage, initiatives like the GTC and the other student accounting clinics can develop valuable new talent for the profession.

“We’ve found they arrive and hit the ground running in a very different way to other graduates who have not had this kind of training,” she says. “There’s something about their work ethic, professional attitude and understanding of dealing with a client, and an ability to connect the dots to get to the solution.”

Better experience, better retention Of particular benefit, she adds, is the awareness a tax clinic graduate has of the role and scope of tax within accounting, which increases the rate of talent retention.

“We’ve had some graduates join us, but later discover they don’t like tax and move on. With the GTC graduates, we know it’s something they have already had experience with, they like it and it’s almost like an extra guarantee that employing them will work out in the long run.”

Jordan Cant, a new consultant on Lock’s KPMG team, is one such GTC graduate. “That experience provided me with a foundational tax technical skill set that instilled valuable selfconfidence, as it can be daunting to commence work in an unfamiliar industry,” he says.

More room for the big players

Freudenberg says that while the Australian Federal Government funding for the initiative looks set to continue, he’s calling on greater involvement from some of the major players, like the big four firms, to assist in expanding the tax clinic’s range of services.

“A lot of the larger CA firms are involved in many volunteer services, but it can be harder to do so with tax, which is where I think they could get more involved with Griffith and the GTC, as well as the other universities,” he says.

“This is just being pragmatic. CA firms want to assist more charities and NFPs. By being involved with the tax clinics, they are also developing the accounting talent that they need in the years ahead.”

Auckland Community Accounting, New Zealand

Eva Chen, Auckland Community Accounting

Eva Chen has been in the role of program lead for Auckland Community Accounting (ACA) for just a few months but has already adopted a philosophy about the value of the initiative – not only to the community groups they service, but also the volunteer accounting students involved.

“There is an old Chinese saying that states, ‘If you start from the right direction, you’re halfway there’,” Chen says. “That applies to everyone we work with, as some of the organisations are so overwhelmed by tax issues they don’t know where to start, while some of the students we have are just finding their way.

“The difference on both sides after even a few months of working together can have a big impact on where they head into the future.”

Established six years ago, the ACA had one of its busiest years in 2023, with 34 Massey University students volunteering their time and skills to work with 12 NFP organisations across Auckland, under the mentorship of 12 accredited local chartered accountants.

Among the organisations ACA assisted are the Aotearoa Trust and the Multiethnic Young Leaders NZ group, as well as a range of sporting clubs and registered charities. A significant proportion of graduates have gone on to careers as chartered accountants.

In big demand

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Chen says more community organisations than ever need the services supplied by the ACA.

“Many groups lost their funding and resources through that time, so they need our students to step in now to help them get everything set up and their accounting back in order, so they can present themselves to their future funders and, in turn, provide more services,” she says.

“This offers an insight for students to see things from a grassroots level and the importance of communicating with clients who may not always understand their accounting and tax responsibilities. The students quickly learn how to do a lot of work on not just establishing but also explaining structure and accountability.”

Getting graduates career ready

Glen Hill has been involved with the ACA since it first started and continues today as mentor to the students. Having worked in accounting roles for companies as diverse as mining and a meat business, he says the ACA program offers many benefits in significant areas.

“I have seen a number of students land full-time roles after their involvement, as they have proven they can develop reports for the processes a client should follow,” he says. “There is also a big focus on developing communication skills in dealing with the client, as well as fellow team members and their CA mentor.

“This level of skills development exposes them to a good level of professional standards and can make them an attractive option once they start looking for work.” For international students in particular, the experience can be of great value, Chen adds.

“International students often don’t have local working experience, so this is a good opportunity to gain confidence with their language and communication skills when dealing with clients, gain local work experience to put on their CV and add new contacts to expand their network for future pathways.

“This is also a great opportunity for all students to gain references from the clients about the project and what was achieved, along with recommendations. That can be so valuable when they are going for new roles.”

The next chapters

A reference from one NFP stated, “From having no system, no way of accounting for grants and funds, we are now legitimately running our accounts in Xero, and we have data and reports to report back to our donors.” Another remarked, “Significant expertise like this is a welcome gift to a small NFP operating on the smell of an oily rag.”

Such has been the success of the ACA program since 2018 that ANCAD and Massey University plan to expand the program throughout the country in the coming years, so that more organisations benefit.

“That way, we can work with students across New Zealand through distance learning and expand the support services to other organisations,” Chen says. “The more support we can provide, while also helping accounting students get their careers running, the better.”

What are the main challenges for NFPs?

According to the Perpetual’s Rising to the Challenge Philanthropy Snapshot for 2024 report, three key challenges for not-for-profits this year are:

1. Increasing costs, coupled with rising demand for NFP services

2. Finding skilled staff and volunteers

3. Regulatory and technical challenges, including cyber threats.

Take away

CA ANZ Not-For-Profit Seminar

If you work or volunteer with a not-for-profit, don’t miss the CA ANZ NFP Seminar, on 12 June 2024. This online event will help grow your skills and knowledge, inspire innovation and help you achieve better results for your team and your organisation.