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Let’s Talk About How CPA Canada Totally F*cked Up Last Week’s CFE

Many years ago in another lifetime, I dated this total loser. Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Adrienne, what the hell do your dubious dating choices have to do with accounting?” Bear with me, we’ll get there.

So, this loser. He was an adorable if grungy scamp with tattoos dotted across his body like scribbles on my middle school notebook covers and dirty blonde hair that managed to be both greasy and perfectly-coiffed at all times. Young me, not yet schooled in the fine art of red flags that subsequent years of dating would teach me, was weak to his charms despite the fact that he brought little to the table other than a killer smile and the occasional bottle of Remy, the latter of which impressed young me since I was too young then to buy my own and too lazy to stand outside of the liquor store waiting for some 30-year-old dorky sap to buy me one.

As I’m sure you can imagine by this point in the story, this guy came with more issues than National Geographic, not least of which being his attraction to substances — both licit and not. This generally wasn’t a problem as he was clever enough to weasel out of most predicaments his unfortunate choices got him into, and I clever enough to avoid him when he was on a bender. But every now and then, he’d find himself face-to-face with some cop who was sick of having to drag his drunk ass in every other week.

In one whiskey-and-who-knows-what-else-fueled incident I can recall, he called me from the drunk tank to inform me that A) I was a bitch for ditching him earlier in the evening, and B) he was in jail, possibly facing an actual charge for fighting or stealing or who the hell can remember, it doesn’t matter now. Given that I lacked both the bail money to get him out and the will to do a favor for someone who just called me a bitch, I let him sit there. A few short hours later, he was out. The time from arrest to his release couldn’t have been more than maybe three or four hours.

So why did I just tell this story? To put into perspective the fact that CPA Canada just treated the country’s future CPAs worse than police treated my loser ex-boyfriend who definitely deserved to be locked up for being an absolute waste of carbon.

Let’s get caught up on this, likely the worst professional examination debacle I think we’ve ever covered in our 10 years here on Going Concern. Because we’re a mostly American-based rag, I feel obligated to explain what the CFE (Common Final Examination) is and how it’s administered, if briefly. Unlike here in the good ole U. S. of A. where future CPAs can schedule exams with relative flexibility, Canadian accountants have to endure a three-day exam that is usually administered just once a year, though sometimes like next year they get lucky and have two chances. This year, the CFE started on Sept. 11 and, according to many reports, was already off to a bad start. But by Sept. 12, the shit had totally hit the fan.

9:15 in Vancouver on day 2 CFE. No one can load secure exam. from r/Accounting

On Monday, a tipster caught us up on the drama which we missed because A) we regrettably forget about our friends up north sometimes, and B) at least for me, I was too busy with Borderlands 3 to waste my time trolling r/accounting for something to write about last weekend and totally missed the complaining.

Hi there,

I am reporting on CPA Canada’s negligence in carrying out this year’s Common Final Examination (“CFE”) last week. This is a very important 3-day examination that prospective accountants must pass to obtain the professional licence to practice accounting in Canada.

There was a massive breach of integrity of the exam because of CPA Canada’s negligence to carry out their job properly. This resulted in many students (i.e. Edmonton location) where they were forced to sit inside the examination centre for 4 hours before the exam started. In other words, when the exam was supposed to start at 9AM, they started at 1PM. They were starved and asked to stay inside the examination centre.

Jesus, even my loser ex-boyfriend got a moldy bologna sandwich in the holding tank.

CPA Canada’s failure to administer the exam and treat candidates with the minimum of dignity while they waited to take what is quite possibly the most important test of their lives has been picked up by all sorts of media, including the Financial Post.

FP writes:

Another online poster, who spoke to the Financial Post on the condition that he would not be identified, described seeing people in Edmonton in emotional and physical distress on the second day of the exam, which was delayed for five hours, and which ultimately proceeded without access to a crucial digital handbook.

“Everyone was tired, exhausted and seemed in no shape to write” by the time the exam started, the poster said on Reddit, adding that a series of delays left the candidates in the examination room for about 12 hours and facing huge lineups for access to limited food and water.

“We study our butts off and stress for 8 weeks only to experience this?” the exam-writer wrote.

A statement we received from an anonymous collective consisting of Canadian Big 4 employees operating under the name Wayne Gretzky (LOL) details the CFE failures, disappointments, and plans to hold CPA Canada responsible. It also explains the situation far better than I can with far fewer tangents about greasy ex-boyfriends, so let’s check it out:

After a poorly administered examination took place last week, Chartered Professional Accountant (“CPA”) candidates across Canada are left to question the integrity and competency of their governing bodies. More than eight thousand CPA students wrote the annual Common Final Examination (“CFE”) from September 11, 2019 to September 13, 2019. The CFE is a three-day examination which requires students who have completed certain post-graduate programs to write four to five hours of simulated business cases each day, testing their competencies to be licensed as a CPA. The CFE is known to be one of the most challenging examinations to write—arguably on par with other professional examinations such as the bar exam for lawyers or qualification exam for doctors—with the majority of candidates sacrificing weeks of time off from work in order to prepare and perform at their best.

What students could not prepare for, however, was the myriad of unexpected technical and administrative issues during this year’s examination. These issues severely disrupted their ability to perform and compromised the validity of examination results. This is the first year that new examination software, called Surpass, was rolled out, and it appears that CPA Canada—the organization which governs the profession and administers the examination—had not adequately prepared themselves for the issues that would come along with this rollout.

This led a number of test centres across the country to delay the examination for up to five hours with limited access to food, drinks, and washrooms. It was likened to being held hostage, and those students ended up writing from 2PM to 7PM when they should have been writing from 9AM to 2PM. One student writes, “I came in that morning ready, […] but the fatigue from sitting and waiting for hours plus unnecessary stress resulted in what I believe to be a clear fail. I’m a good student, I studied like my life depended on it. In a normal exam condition, I’d have passed without any issue.”

In addition, some students were handicapped by being forced to write responses by hand as opposed to typing, with no access to reference material on their computers during the “open-book” examination. The examination was supposed to be written through the Surpass software, which saved typed responses and allowed students to view certain reference material, while locking down their computers from opening other applications. The software was ultimately used by only a fraction of students, and even so, these students faced slow response times and periodic glitches. There are also students falling in the last category of being told to write on Microsoft Word and access the internet for reference material, because the software did not work for the entire centre. To this point, one student wonders, “The test was going to be written at one point with three different groups having various resources […] How can you mark a test three different ways and make that fair?”

Not only are there issues in the fairness of marking, but students are convinced that examination results were also compromised due to the opportunities that opened up for cheating. A student from the West coast wrote, “Our start time was after when Eastern Canada [sic] would have finished their exam and there was no measure taken to ensure that there was no exam information leakage across the country.”

Indeed, some students from the Eastern time zones posted details about specific questions on social media despite having accepted a confidentiality agreement prior to the examination, and their posts benefitted users in the West who had unsupervised access to the internet during the delays.

The inappropriate handling of the situation by CPA Canada only made matters worse. Proctors appeared to not have been trained or communicated with properly because they made last-minute decisions and provided inconsistent instructions. One student recalls that “the staff in the room were very disorganized and clearly had no clue what to do.” To add on, another student expresses, “I’m mostly upset with the time it took to resolve the issues, and the lack of communication provided to the candidates.”

Social media sites such as Reddit were flooded with comments after each day, from students sharing their “disappointing”, “horrifying”, and “disastrous” experiences while expressing their thoughts surrounding the “lack of professionalism” by CPA Canada. The issues mentioned in this article make up only a small number of many more outlined by the accounts of hundreds of students. Even individuals who did not write the examination had something to say about the series of events: “As a mentor to a student, and a current CPA profession member, the way the CFE was handled and carried out this year was blatantly unacceptable. I’m ashamed of my profession for the way this was carried out. There is no excuse for this.”

The Surpass software mentioned in the statement was first used for last year’s exams and is supposed to offer “enhanced functionality and flexibility for examination writers and administrators.” It’s unclear at this point what part if any Surpass played in this debacle. That said, I’ve got a PDF of hundreds of candidate comments in front of me with countless complaints about the software, leading a reasonable person to assume it had a lot to do with last week’s drama. Since this is already running long and I know you guys, like me, have the attention span of a gnat, I’ll only share a choice few.

Surpass has been a nightmare. I wasn’t even able to upload my exam today. Day 1 they kept us for an extra hour after the exam due to technical difficulties with the software. We were advised not to use the cut function because it would freeze the software. The whole rollout of Surpass seems very poorly planned and basically exactly what they are teaching us not to do, as CPAs. I certainly expected better, considering the amount of money I paid to write the CFE.


Surpass froze on me roughly 3 hours into the exam. A proctor took my computer and spent 30 minutes working on it without telling me what he was doing. I saw him with a back-up laptop and a USB key, so I assumed he was transferring my work, but when I asked him about it, he told me that the work I did was saved on the USB, and that I would have to finish the exam by hand.


Please note that this is not the first time that there have been issues with the new software. I wrote my elective exam in December, 2018 and experienced the same issues (actually worse, because my computer crashed multiple times and I lost 20-30 minutes).

And my favorite comment of all:

As I said, the thing goes on for comment after comment. We’d be here all day and probably piss off our benevolent overlords at Accountingfly for all the server space we’d have to buy just to host every single complaint if I posted every single one. Let’s just say Surpass isn’t looking good at this point.

Like damn. As some of y’all know, I’m a day one Fallout 76 player and even Bethesda isn’t this bad when it comes to glitches, good Lord.

Oh hey, Mr Glitched Ghoul Guy

Of course CPA Canada was forced to make a statement, the entirety of which we’re including below because why not, this thing is already long as hell.

During the administration of the three-day Common Final Exam (CFE) there were technical delays resulting in a challenging exam writing experience for many students. We extend our sincere apologies to everyone who was affected as we know how much work goes into preparing and writing this important examination and how stressful it has been for our students.

In response to issues caused by technical problems with the CFE, CPA Canada is retaining a third-party expert to conduct an independent, comprehensive review. The mandate includes evaluating the integrity and reliability of the September 2019 examination process.

To inform our review, we are actively gathering information from students, proctors, and others to understand what happened and how it impacted the exam-writing experience. We are committed to maintaining the integrity of the profession and the Common Final Examination.

An independent board of examiners oversees the CFE evaluation process. Over many years, they have developed a robust system for taking into account extenuating circumstances that affect exam-writers. Given what occurred during this year’s exam, this CFE evaluation process will be supplemented by the third-party review.

We will proceed as quickly as possible, but our main priority is to provide the time necessary for a fair, accurate and equitable outcome.

At the same time, we are also immediately reviewing the technical issues that arose across the country and are working with our service providers to do everything possible to avoid a future reoccurrence.

We recognize what a difficult time this has been for many and we want to reassure exam-writers we have the people and processes in place to resolve the situation as quickly and effectively as possible.

Yeah, tell that to the poor bastards holed up in a gymnasium for hours on end last week.

This disaster comes just after CPA Canada released a likely multimillion-dollar advertising campaign on “The New Face” of Canada’s CPAs, making for an awkward discussion about CPA Canada’s priorities when they’re burning the future new faces this hard.