Clifford Friend, the IFoAs director of education, talks to Richard Purcell about preparing the next generation of actuaries for the future, and supporting experienced fellows in their ongoing learning
However, joining the IFoA was, in fact, a natural progression for Friend. After completing an engineering degree, an academic career followed in materials and product engineering. He then went on to become a professor and acting vice-chancellor of Cranfield University. Interestingly, his work has also had a strong link to the commercial world, whether it be working on consumer products or in aerospace. "It was almost like working in the private sector."
This focus on 'the real world' meant he has continued to foster strong links within the business community and was until recently an elected council member of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI).
He later made the switch into professional education, first running an educational offering at a military defence academy, followed by a period in executive education, becoming chairman of one of the UK's largest university-based executive development companies. As Friend says: "There are great parallels with the IFoA, both seeking to deliver high-quality education to learned professionals in a business setting."
In describing his role at the IFoA, he outlines his main priorities: "The curriculum review has been in place for the past two years, so now part of my role is to bring everything together and implement this. The other part is to look at the longer term and how the profession can support members as the work of actuaries changes."
We move on to discuss the changes to the curriculum in more detail, and what this will mean for students. On the objectives of the upcoming changes, Friend says: "We need to prepare members for the future and to ensure they can compete." But he is adamant it is not just about doing a review every 10 years: "We need to continuously review and improve the curriculum."
Having had feedback from a range of stakeholders, including students, employers, the International Actuarial Association and education delivery companies, Friend explains that one of the themes will be equipping students better for the initial parts of their career. For example, giving students some exposure to the growing field of data analytics. "There are other bodies that can help people become skilled in this field, but they will have less knowledge of how it fits into the world. But context is how we add value. This is where actuaries can help, and while actuaries can work with other partners who have more specialist skills, we also need to have an appreciation of the issues and the ability to work with other partners in multidisciplinary teams. That's what we are hoping to provide students."
I ask him what he thinks about the increasing use of online assessments. His response is that "online exams are about demonstrating competencies rather than knowledge. Written exams are fine for assessing technical knowledge, but assessing competencies in a written exam means things have to be simplified and paired down". He admits, however, that: "Online exams can actually be much closer in scale and nature to what someone might do in the real world. This is important if we want to have a gold standard in competency assessment." He also accepts that online assessments can help us improve reach, adding: "We need to ensure people have access to the web, and we are also making sure the security and reliability of such systems are robust."
Friend reveals that the new exam structure and curriculum will be announced shortly, with transition arrangements published in October.
A final question on the topic of exams is about a common objection from students - the time between taking an exam and receiving the result. In typical style, Friend tackles this head on: "We are doing a lot behind the scenes to make this quicker, such as opening up more slots for examinations, but the process does rely on 300 volunteers and staff. There is also the aspect of getting the process right for the 30,000 exam papers from over 100 centres in over 80 countries."
On the comparison often made with other professional qualifications, Friend says that: "As a highly regarded qualification, it has to be assessed appropriately. So while other qualifications frequently use multiple-choice questions, this does not work so well for our qualifications."
I ask him about the difficulties in delivering an examination system on this scale. He says: "This is a significant activity that relies on the dedication, judgment and professionalism of both the IFoA's volunteer base and executive staff. We are all clear about the robust outcomes from this process; however, you will appreciate that, with such volumes and time pressures, it is challenging to eliminate entirely the occasional human error.
"Occasionally procedural errors are identified in the marking of examinations sat by a small number of candidates. However, when discovered, these are quickly corrected, and it is reassuring that usually they do not lead to any change in the outcome of an individual's assessment."
The long view
On the strategic developments in education, we discuss the need for more than one level of qualification. As Friend explains: "We are maintaining the gold standard in professional qualifications through the fellowship. But we have seen demand for a purely technical role from both developing economies and more established employers in Europe." This is where the introduction of the Certified Actuarial Analyst (CAA) comes into play, as Friend elaborates: "The new CAA is a way to build actuarial capacity in countries where there is very little today." In countries like the UK, he sees it as an "opportunity for apprentices," as governments provide more incentives for employers to take on students straight from school. "I don't envisage other levels of qualification being created, but I do think we need to think about more breadth. There should be a core set of actuarial skills that every actuary needs to have, and then we need to give members the opportunity to specialise in more areas, and refocus if they change fields later in their career."
This brings us neatly on to new fields of work, and where Friend sees more opportunities for actuaries with the growth of big data and also in banking and finance, to name just
two examples. "There are already bodies providing qualifications in these spaces, and there is much we can learn from them."
He also recognises that actuaries are already working in multidisciplinary teams with banking or big data experts and believes that education needs to replicate this multidisciplinary approach: "We are looking at ways we can work with other organisations to support our members working in increasingly multi-disciplinary teams."
Another broad theme on Friend's agenda is how andragogy, the theory and practice of adult learning, is changing. Expanding on this, he says: "People are now learning while in work, and using tools on the internet to do so." He points to the fact that actuaries will change roles and areas of specialism more frequently, and that there is the need to support members in doing this.
As our interview draws to a close, we turn to continuing professional development (CPD), which Friend sees as "understandably regulatory focused and fairly short-term, which is a given". But for him it is not the same as lifelong learning. "The latter is more about individuals making decisions and driving what they learn." He believes this is important in helping people to change direction in their careers, and respond to a changing world. As he says:
"If people want to learn throughout their career, we need to support them in doing so, and potentially create a credential associated with it."
For Friend, lifelong learning is just one example of his self-confessed passion for continuous improvement:
"The educator in me is always looking at how we can do things better for learners, drawing on feedback from our members and other sources."
Clifford Friend, the IFoA's director of education