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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

The calculator-gate scandal

Exams — like them or hate them, we all have vivid memories of individual desks laid out in an empty, over-sized gym. I am not sure if I enjoyed the experience or just loved that the guilty feeling of ‘I should be studying’ disappeared after the exam, leaving more time to spend on fun things like celebrating or sleeping.

Personally, I liked the fact that for a few brief hours of our lives, everyone was on a level playing field. The room was quiet, it was every man for himself and good healthy competition prevailed. Exams can be cruel to many, but there are a lucky few who know how to work the system and learn how to pass an exam as opposed to learning the subject. For them, exams can be the key to their future.

There is a different story for the actuarial exams. ‘I should be studying’ turns into ‘I have too much work to take a study day this week’, or ‘I can’t face sitting that exam again’. That over-achieving feeling of high school days is gone, and getting the actuarial exam results is more relief than celebration, but it is always satisfying to gain comfort in the fact that everyone is in the same boat. However, for actuarial exams this is not the case, and the cause is a simple handheld device known as a calculator.

The Institute of Actuaries’ website states: “The following calculators ONLY are permitted”, and goes on to list six. However, preceding this, it says: “Candidates are advised that invigilators will be asked to report the use of calculators not on the permitted list and the Board of Examiners will decide how to treat such cases at the results meetings.” Being realistic, can you really imagine the Board of Examiners going through all 11 818 entries and deciding how to treat the entries for which the student did not have a permitted calculator? From my exam-taking experience in both UK and overseas exam centres, the number of students with a calculator other than one of the six listed is very high. The situation is complicated further by the range of calculators, and understanding all the available functions on every possible calculator is not easy.

Moreover, how helpful the additional functions on non-permitted calculators will be depends on the exam in question. For example, you would be less likely to benefit from a calculator with additional functions and features in a CA3 exam compared to more numerical subjects such as CT1 and CT6.

It seems unjust to continue with the current monitoring approach to calculators, and it is somewhat bringing into question the integrity of the Institute of Actuaries. The only realistic solution is to ban all calculators other than the ones on the list so the exams are fair. So when will this happen? Or should we be asking: why has this not happened already?

John Connor is an actuarial student working in general insurance.


Response from Trevor Watkins,
head of learning for the Actuarial Profession
“The issue of which calculators to allow in the actuarial examinations has been the subject of much debate at the Profession’s Education Committee over the past few years. The aim of the committee is to make the system as fair as possible, while recognising that candidates may be accustomed to using a particular calculator at work and would feel disadvantaged using a different type in examinations. Many universities specify only one calculator to use, but the committee has felt that in the Profession’s exams, limiting the range to a few models is the fairest approach, and that no particular calculator gives candidates specific advantages.

“We have had cases raised by invigilators, and these are taken very seriously by the exam board. For instance, one candidate using a prohibited calculator refused to hand it over to the invigilator in the exam and was given an FD grade at the exam board. The committee has considered limiting the calculator usage to a single specific model and will keep the situation under review.”


Please note that the June student page carried an article by Bigknown Shiriyapenga entitled The six stresses of an actuarial student. It has since come to our attention that this article covered similar ground to a 2004 article by Adrian Jones. Mr. Shiriyapenga wishes to acknowledge this fact and apologise for not making this clear.