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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

Working overseas: Lecturing in Armenia and Albania

The US Agency for International Development (USAID) programme has supported the development of a financial sector in many Eastern European countries, using experienced volunteers. I have twice volunteered — once in Armenia and more recently in Albania. These are unpaid assignments, although the USAID programme meets the costs of flights and accommodation.

Course structure
Most of the students are already working in the insurance and pension industries, some in senior positions despite a lack of formal actuarial training. The lecture programme makes a very positive contribution, giving young actuaries the tools to build a thriving financial sector.

The full programme consists of about 16 modules, each lasting one week. I delivered a finance and investment module, with other volunteers leading the other modules. The UK Actuarial Profession allowed us to reprint relevant sections of the core reading. The syllabus is broad, so the lecturers have to be selective about what they can cover in limited time. Students are relying on examiners to pick the material that will be of most use to them.

Learning from the students
Both Albania and Armenia have seen enormous political and social upheaval in the last 25 years, including large numbers of immigrants displaced from conflicts in neighbouring countries. A few individuals have become extremely wealthy. Disputes over property ownership are rife, contract enforcement is hit and miss, while many of the financial instruments we take for granted in developed economies simply do not exist. Students were staggered at UK tax rates, which are much higher and more efficiently collected than in Albania or Armenia — they asked me how the government managed to spend so much money. These questions all have implications for institutional investment and, at times, I felt I learned as much from the class discussions as the students did.

Neither the Soviet Union nor the Albanian socialist regime did much to encourage free thinking or challenge established ideas. Although these regimes collapsed twenty years ago, the education systems are still dominated by officially sanctioned facts which students are then expected to reproduce. My fragment of the actuarial syllabus covered several contentious issues, including the merits of book value versus mark-to-market accounting, the extent to which a company’s shareholders benefit from risky investment inside an employee pension scheme, the advantages and disadvantages of different tax structures and so on.

I tried to explore these questions with class discussions, eliciting competing arguments from the students and encouraging them to explain both points of view. This was a real struggle — everyone wrongly supposed the purpose of the discussion was for them to find out which answer I personally believed, so that they could then win my favour by reciting that view.

Reflection on examinations
Various volunteers found different aspects of the programmes challenging. Some struggled with unfamiliar food and toilet design. Personally, I relish finding my way around foreign countries armed with a map and a phrase book, and positively enjoyed the travel. I am quite used to standing in front of a group of people and explaining actuarial methods. For me, the unexpectedly difficult part was setting and marking examinations. Setting questions I considered to be clear and unambiguous, I was astonished at the number of different possible interpretations reflected in the examination scripts. Many of these were legitimate even though not at all what I had intended. Most of the remaining misunderstandings said more about students’ command of English than their knowledge of actuarial science. I tried to be generous in my marking.

Learning from my experience in Armenia, the second time around I worked backwards from the need to set a test. I biased the lectures towards material that I could easily examine without becoming a test of proficiency in English — lists and simple numerical procedures to perform on a calculator. The complaint that teaching material is of little practical use resounds from educational programmes across the world, but I wonder whether the students are aware of the trade-offs that lead to that situation?

What next?
The actuaries in Armenia and Albania deserve our support as they start to build their professions. Thanks to the USAID programme, practising actuaries are now better equipped to contribute to the sound development of their own financial industries, although far more is still needed. Our own royal charter states the profession’s objective “to advance all matters relevant to actuarial science and its application and to regulate and promote the actuarial profession”. In many new economies there is a lack of senior experienced actuaries to provide leadership, so support from abroad will continue to be valuable.

Andrew Smith is head of capital markets at Deloitte in London


Further reading: Working Overseas

This special supplement looks at career opportunities for actuaries around the world, and how to plan for a move abroad

Emmanuel Kenning - Global trends and opportunities
Trevor Watkins - Actuarial qualifications
Hannah Kaye - Actuarial skills travel well
Andrew Smith - Lecturing in Armenia and Albania

Region focus
Mark Dainty - United Kingdom
Jan Sparks - Europe
Wilhelm de Wet - South Africa
Luke Hawkins - Asia

Case studies
Switzerland - Alex Summers
Spain - Carl Haughton
South Africa - Bjorn Landewig
South Africa - Ashlin Noonan
Nigeria - Alexandre Aquereburu
Hong Kong - Paul Murray
Hong Kong - Mark Stamper
Indonesia - Chris Lossin
Bermuda - Amy Guna
Australia - Matt Noyce
Australia - Ashley Palmer