Education: Serving With Distinction


Serving with Distinction

By Peter Hayes

WE KICKED OFF A SERIES of articles on Education in the last issue of The Actuary by talking a bit about what it takes to become an actuary these days, and addressing some of the myths that seem to have sprung up about this decade's education system redesign. Near the end of that article we observed that, "The clients of Education are diverse, and we must continue to serve them with distinction. This starts with dozens of staff and an army of volunteers. ..."

Chances are if you're reading this, you are a client of Education. Are you being served with distinction? Does the answer change if you take off your member hat and put on your employer hat? Or maybe you're a candidate—does the education system provoke images of high quality and super–high standards, something that will make you extraordinarily proud to have gotten through?

The profession in North America has long believed in a system whereby the profession itself: (i) sets out learning objectives (the stuff somebody needs to know to be recognized as an actuary); (ii) identifies the learning outcomes (the skills, tasks and syllabus material that, if properly displayed, completed or mastered, offers proof that the learning objectives have been met); and (iii) tests whether the learning outcomes have, in fact, been met by those declaring their candidacy for professional membership. The determination of a candidate's qualification for membership is itself set by the profession, and it takes enormous effort on the part of hundreds of volunteers, working alongside some extremely dedicated SOA staff, to fulfill the obligation bequeathed by the profession to itself to maintain an educational standard that is both uncompromising and that serves the profession with distinction.

The SOA's Education Committee (the committee formerly known as E&E) is, by far, the SOA's largest. Its volunteers are drawn from across the profession, often bringing expertise related to their vocational background and experience. The committee's organization lines up according to three broad activities: curriculum, e–Learning and examination.
The PDFchart on page 41 offers insight into the Committee's structure.

The Committee's direction comes from the SOA Board, and based on that direction the curriculum and e–Learning groups set the learning objectives and the accompanying syllabus for the Preliminary Education (PE), e–Learning and Fellowship portions of the path candidates must follow to become an actuary. The examination and e–Learning assessment groups then set about testing their competency in the relevant areas.

Testing competency is the most visible part of the Committee's work—we all remember what an actuarial exam is, and the most recent among us know what phrases like end–of–module exercise and FAP assessment mean. The less visible parts, though, are equally essential, and none work in a silo—it takes tremendous cooperation, as well as coordination, to administer the SOA's Education system.

In fact, the chart's simplicity belies the breadth and depth of the entire Education group, and the vast number of volunteers we need to make it work. The bottom row of the chart, for instance, shows five boxes worth of committees (all under the broad umbrella of the Education Committee), but these actually represent nearly three dozen separate groups (each a committee unto itself) dedicated to determining whether or not candidates are able to demonstrate sufficient mastery of the skills, tasks and syllabus material to qualify for membership in the profession.

So who are these groups? Well, there's a distinct committee for each of the five PE exams, and a curriculum committee that covers all of them. And then there's the fellowship level, where the work of each group is segregated by track: individual life and annuities, group life and health, retirement, finance/ERM and investment. And finally there is the Fundamentals of Actuarial Practice e–Learning course, which has its own unique set of volunteer committees that must coordinate their work with both the curriculum and the examination committees.

Marshalling and coordinating all of the work, as well as the volunteers, is a major undertaking, and it takes cooperation at the highest levels of the system to pull it off. Take fellowship exams, for instance: for each track, there is a general officer in charge of the curriculum and a general officer in charge of the exams, and they communicate well in advance of an exam's administration. In fact, the exam cycle is almost continuous, in the sense that a committee will start gearing up for the administration of the next exam literally as the results for the last one are being posted. The curriculum committee's work comes even before that—the syllabus needs to be in place when the exam planning is still in its infancy, nearly a year ahead of its administration.

In addition to the general officers, each exam has a chair in charge of organizing the entire exam activity, and in most cases a vice chair to whom the committee members themselves are responsible. Some tracks offer separate U.S. and Canadian exams, and in these cases each exam has its own vice chair and committee, usually with crossover between the two.

So let's see: for a given track, we have a committee to set the syllabus, a committee to set the exam (one each for Design and Pricing and Company/Sponsor Perspective), and within these, separate U.S. and Canadian committees. Multiply by life, health, finance, investment ... and that's just for the fellowship exams! Then let's add the PE exam and curriculum committees, along with the e–Learning group, and you start to gain an appreciation for the reliance that the profession has on itself for volunteers.

Actuaries that volunteer their time for Education often land in an area befitting their talents. PE, for instance, often attracts members that work in the academic field, and they bring to the table knowledge of syllabus materials that are up–to–date and relevant, or knowledge of holes in the syllabus and how they might be fixed, and knowledge and experience with respect to how to construct proper and insightful questions, along with ideas as to the level of mastery that needs to be demonstrated to pass their exams.

Fellowship exams, on the other hand, tend to attract industry practitioners, whose real jobs are in the insurance or consulting fields. Given the written answer nature of these exams, the practical knowledge and real–life situations that go into their construction results in questions of a higher cognitive level—and the commensurately higher quality of response demanded of candidates on a fellowship level exam.

You might wonder why actuaries volunteer for roles in the Education system. We did too, so we undertook a survey, differentiating between why people get involved in the first place, versus why they stay involved. (See the PDFVolunteer Survey above.)

Education volunteers also get to travel, to create exams, to grade exams, to set a syllabus, for e–Learning, ... and our survey said they enjoy this aspect, too, with several citing travel as a supplemental reason for getting and staying involved.

Education lives, breathes and stays healthy when it is able to attract top–notch volunteers from within the profession, and the need for actuaries to volunteer has never been more tested than it has been under the most recent redesign of the Education system. It is easy to stand back and be critical of the most recent redesign—it is the most radical departure from the traditional 1–to–10 exam system we have ever seen, and it is unlikely we will evolve backwards from here—but we need to remember that we (the profession) were the ones to undertake the task.

Why did we do it? Because the responsibility entrusted to the profession's leadership is to set forth the requirements for becoming an actuary, to set the standard for determining who meets those requirements—and to measure whether or not that standard has been met by every individual that wants to call themselves an actuary. The skills we demand of actuaries must necessarily evolve over time—the skill set we demand today is different than it was yesterday—and so too must the ways those skills are taught, learned and tested or validated.

The profession consists of those bearing an actuarial designation. Each of us, whether we realize it or not, is part of what sets the very high standards demanded of others that wish to join. Our obligation is to ourselves as a profession, and in order to fulfill that obligation, the individual members of the profession (you and me) along with our employers and other stakeholders, need to make sure that the labor required to staff the dozens of committees that fall under the Education Committee umbrella is available.

The purpose of this article is not to plead for your participation. In fact, it is simply one in a series of six articles that are meant to heighten awareness with respect to all that is happening—sometimes at what seems like breakneck speed—in the world of the Education Committee. The reality, though, is we are all busy, and more hands will always be welcomed, especially in the area of e–Learning, which is, in fact, pleading for the participation of new volunteers. So if you are interested, the rewards, though not monetary, are nonetheless tremendous and fulfilling.

By the way, speaking of e–Learning, it has become such an influencing force in terms of where we're going that we are devoting an entire article to it. Look for it next time around, and in the meantime, thanks for reading this one. I'd be happy to hear from you, and if you'd like to volunteer, let me know—it will be worth your while!

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Peter Hayes, FSA, FCIA, is a principal with Eckler Ltd. He can be contacted at