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Are You Experiencing “Exam Option Overload”?

Are You Experiencing “Exam Option Overload”?

This article is relevant to anybody who wants to further their career in the financial services industry, whether you are at Certificate Level or Diploma Level.

 There is no doubt that there is a lot of confusion over financial services exams at present.  Many individuals sitting the current J0 exams for the Level 4 CII Diploma in Financial Planning are only now becoming aware of the new CII Diploma in Regulated Financial Planning.  Many are now confused about which path they should now travel.  Should they stick with the existing Diploma, or should they jump over to the new?  Or should they ‘mix and match’?  And where does that level those of you who are part way through the CII Certificate?

There is a additional confusion over the difficulty level of the new CII Diploma exams.  The new exams (bar one) are multiple choice.  The general assumption is that multiple choice exams are easier than the current short-answer Diploma exams.  Based on the Certificate exams, this isn’t a surprising assumption to make.  However multiple choice exams can be written in such a way that they can be harder than short-answer questions.  Short-answers allow you to write as much as you want, even that that you’re not sure of, and you can gain marks.  However with multiple choice they can be written in such a way that you need to be very certain about the subject matter.  This is how the questions for the New Diploma will be set.  Furthermore, as multiple choice questions are generally quicker to answer, more of the exam syllabus can be examined in one exam.   This means that the individual will have to have a thorough knowledge of the entire syllabus rather than taking an ‘educated guess’ about which topics are ‘due’ for examination.

There is no doubt that there is a lot of confusion over financial services exams at present.  Many individuals sitting the current J0 exams for the Level 4 CII Diploma in Financial Planning are only now becoming aware of the new CII Diploma in Regulated Financial Planning.  Many are now confused about which path they should now travel.  Should they stick with the existing Diploma, or should they jump over to the new?  Or should they ‘mix and match’?  And where does that level those of you who are part way through the CII Certificate?

There is a additional confusion over the difficulty level of the new CII Diploma exams.  The new exams (bar one) are multiple choice.  The general assumption is that multiple choice exams are easier than the current short-answer Diploma exams.  Based on the Certificate exams, this isn’t a surprising assumption to make.  However multiple choice exams can be written in such a way that they can be harder than short-answer questions.  Short-answers allow you to write as much as you want, even that that you’re not sure of, and you can gain marks.  However with multiple choice they can be written in such a way that you need to be very certain about the subject matter.  This is how the questions for the New Diploma will be set.  Furthermore, as multiple choice questions are generally quicker to answer, more of the exam syllabus can be examined in one exam.   This means that the individual will have to have a thorough knowledge of the entire syllabus rather than taking an ‘educated guess’ about which topics are ‘due’ for examination.

What is worrying, is that a number of people are delaying their studies because they’re confused as to what path they should take.  Unfortunately time is passing us by and the 2012 deadline will be upon us before we know it.  Delaying is certainly not the answer.  But can we really blame people for not knowing what to do, and therefore stalling the decision?

What we do know is that if you stick with the existing CII Diploma, you will almost certainly have to undertake additional competency gap-filling activity, whereas the new Diploma meets the RDR exam requirements in full.

But the confusion isn’t just kept to students of the CII Diploma.  It appears that ultimately individuals will be moved towards skipping the Certificate level, and going straight in at Diploma level.  The CII are actively advising those who want to ultimately become a financial adviser NOT to enrol for the Certificate.  Whilst this may be the best route for some people with a background in financial services, for other this strikes me as being slightly crazy.  For new entrants into the financial services industry, studying for and passing a Diploma level exam will be a tough path.  Sitting the Certificate and getting a basic knowledge and understanding before moving onto the Diploma seems to make a lot more sense.  Many potentially successful individuals may well be put off by the Diploma, and may be lost from the industry.

And what of those who are part way through the CII Certificate?  Well, the message we are receiving loud and clear is that Certificate level exam-takers are not at all happy that some of their exams are now considered ‘wasted’ in terms of time and cost.  Who can blame them?

But that’s not the only problem with the current state of exams.  The IFS’s Diploma is also set at Level 4, but it is seen as the ‘underdog’.  Many regard it as the easy option rather than giving it the respect it may well deserve.  And don’t forget the alternative assessments for the new Diploma in Regulated Financial Planning.  The alternative assessment is due to roll-out from November.  Whilst this is only appropriate for experienced advisers with extensive knowledge, it brings another option to the mix.

AIFA recently announced a Level 5 qualification – the Diploma in Investment Planning.  Whilst ever higher qualifications can only be a good thing for the industry, the timing of this could be better.  At a time when there is confusion over the ‘new’ and ‘old’ Diplomas offered by the CII at Level 4, this new qualification at Level 5 raises the question of where the next benchmark qualification will be.  Should everybody be aiming for Level 5?  Will the bar be raised again in the next few years?   And then of course Tenet have teamed up with the IFP to offer advisers a way of achieving QCF Level 6 via their Certified Financial Planner option.  And recently the CISI announced the launch of an alternative assessment option from August linked to the existing Private Client Investment Advice and Management exam which is at Level 6.  Not to mention the Chartered and Certified options already available, as well as the Advanced Diploma in Financial Planning.

I’m all for having choices, but the feedback from our customers is that the waters just keep getting muddier.  Many existing advisers are already worried about hitting the 2012 deadline, without worrying about whether or not they are making the ‘correct’ decisions about which exams to take.

These are tough times for advisers.  I personally believe that increasing the basic qualification level for advisers is a good thing for the industry, but the confusion and uncertainty being caused by the manner in which it is being communicated is far from positive.

A variation of this article was first printed in T-C News in July 2010.