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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

Diet diaries

Having just sat what I hope will be my final actuarial exam, I was somewhat disappointed when one of the editorial topics suggested to me for June was the exams. However, knowing what a contentious subject the exams are and seeing the potential for creating healthy debate in the letters page, I reluctantly agreed to consider the topic of exam timing.The Education and CPD Board recently carried out a review of the profession’s examination timetable. The outcome of this review is a proposal to switch the exam dates to the middle two weeks in May and November and to retain these dates each year. The board states the main reason for the change is religious festivals and national holidays in different parts of the world, particularly the moveable feast of Easter. Further justification for the change is the FSA deadline at the end of March, which puts pressure on life company students.Employers were vastly in favour of the change, while the examiners were vastly against November but could live with moving to May. However, by rejecting November, a move to May was effectively rejected as most of the objectives for change could not to be met.Personally, I liked the existing timings. I do not work in a life office but enjoy the first quarter-end pension valuation and FRS17 season which can’t be that much easier than a life company return. I am religious and have always managed to celebrate Easter enjoyably and even moved house on two Easter weekends in the past ten years. All this while passing exams at both the spring and autumn sittings on a consistent basis. An actuary friend did a review of religious festivals around the world and couldn’t come up with any two-week period when there was not some sort of holiday or festival. We live in an increasingly secular world and to some students an exam shortly after an important football game is more inconvenient than a religious festival. Indeed my excuse for not having run the marathon yet is ‘those blasted April exams’. I won’t get on to the subject of skiing (or lack of), having had to fly back from Geneva on one occasion to sit an exam in London as the profession has not yet realised the potential for a Chamonix exam centre.Also, assuming uniform distribution of birth dates throughout the calendar year, it is almost certain that each exam sitting has a birthday boy or girl in it.However, the status quo was not an acceptable position for the profession as a supplier of customer services, and the customer base was demanding change.The six-month period between exams may be an improvement, as the gap before the September sitting can be too short to study properly. However, I have concerns about the transitional period if the change goes ahead. The new timetable would mean a longer time between the spring and autumn exams and may therefore add to the qualification period for some students (albeit by only two months!). These students could consider asking the profession to compensate the two months’ lost salary increase. A way to get round this would be to hold three sittings in the transitional year (eg April, May, and November) rather than April then November or September then May). Trevor Watkins stated in his presentation to the Bristol Actuarial Society in September 2006 that one of the principles of exam standards is for candidates to have ‘equal chance of passing at each diet and with each marker’. The proposals could be seen to go some way to meeting the first principle. However, I believe that life cannot stop for the exams. Babies will be born, students will get married, celebrate Passover, and some will even run the marathon. With this all happening the profession will never fit the exams around our busy lives. I therefore believe that it is near impossible to create a timetable that avoids things that students do that are important to them.The second principle, however, warrants an entire editorial of its own. I will consider my take on the fairness of marking when the results of my April exam are published.