Study notes end up as international textbook

Study notes end up as international textbook

6 Dec 2021 - 21:30
Story: Angie Hunter

A textbook is always a remarkable achievement for an academic, requiring a finely tuned balance of teaching ability, discipline expertise, and writing skills. A successful book can hope to be prescribed at a handful of the country’s universities and perhaps even to impact the national development of the discipline by educating not only students but also practitioners and researchers. With Understanding Financial Accounting: A Guide for Non-Specialists, the authors, Jimmy Winfield, Mark Graham and Taryn Miller, all academics in UCT’s Faculty of Commerce, are raising the bar. Their publisher, Oxford University Press in the UK, is promoting the new book not only in South Africa but also across Europe and the Middle East.

A series of the authors’ book covers showing the progression to the 2021 international book.

This is a new chapter in a long, improbable story, which starts in the early days of Graham’s long tenure as the Accounting lecturer on UCT’s top-ranked MBA programmes. He had soon realised that, unlike the undergraduates he had always taught on upper campus, these students were not interested in learning to think like accountants, the preparers of financial reports. Instead, they needed a different set of skills that would enable them to use financial statements to help them make sound business decisions. Graham saw that a whole new approach was required, so he set about reinventing his teaching material.

When he sat down to compile a set of class notes, he decided to enlist the help of Winfield, then in his first year of teaching Accounting at UCT, and a capable writer after completing a Masters in philosophy and politics as a Rhodes scholar. Winfield took one look and declared that the work was too good to become merely a collection of dog-eared pages to be crammed before the exam. With a little work, he convinced Graham, it could be turned into something much more.

Winfield laughs as he remembers his naivety: “I was right about the enormous potential of what Mark had created, but boy was I wrong about how much effort it would take to get us there!” The hard work paid off, though. The book, named Understanding Financial Statements, has since been used at many of the country’s finest institutions of learning and has been cited in numerous academic journals. Most important, it has earned grateful praise from a whole generation of students who never expected to enjoy a book on accounting, nor for it to be the only prescribed book that they still referred to at work once their studies were over.

However, the work required to produce the local book paled in comparison to the demands of the international book released this year. Miller, who joined the writing team as the technical expert in 2010, explains that it has taken three long years from proposal to publication. “We updated all of the content, introduced entirely new chapters, added hundreds of references to global companies, devised novel illustrations, reworked every existing example, created close to a thousand new questions and rewrote just about every word. Along the way, we were held to the highest of standards. Every chapter was subjected to a double-blind review process by at least four international reviewers so that in the end, no fewer than 29 other academics had evaluated our efforts.”

The authors are immensely proud of the result. “I know this is a ridiculous thing to say about a book on accounting,” Winfield says, at once proud and sheepish, “but it really is beautiful. Yes, the full-colour design is stunning, with every page a treat for the eyes, but the beauty is more than page deep. We have crafted every element with love, care and as much wisdom as we have managed to acquire after many patient years toiling away in the classroom”.

Graham, who will retire at the end of the year, says, “I have been deeply touched by the incredible number of people who have been reaching out to me to wish me well in my retirement, and to tell me that my teaching has made a difference to them. It’s wonderful also to have this book, a physical artefact that in many ways represents some of the best of what I was able to achieve during my career at UCT. I’m glad that it will allow me to continue to have an impact for thousands of people here at home and many others around the world”. It’s no small feat for what started out as a set of study notes.

Understanding Financial Accounting: A Guide for Non-Specialists, by Winfield, Graham and Miller, published in 2021 by Oxford University Press, ISBN 9780198847274, is aimed primarily at readers who do not want to become accountants but who nonetheless need to understand and interpret the information reported in financial statements. It assumes no starting knowledge and is intended for both students and business professionals. At over 450 pages, it has been structured to easily allow the reader to access whatever depth of knowledge they wish to obtain. The book is currently available for sale at