Productive times for the CIA University Accreditation Program

By Joseph Gabriel, FCIA, Staff Actuary, Education, at the CIA

COVID-19 affected the winter 2020 university term in which over the course of just a few days, institutions and instructors moved to remote learning within the context of a global emergency. All the carefully planned courses suddenly shifted fully online as university buildings were shut down, dormitories closed, lectures were conducted with teleconference platforms, and assessments, too, went digital.

The current pandemic situation and its significant impacts on higher education provide the perfect opportunity to report on the formidable responses by CIA accredited universities to uphold the rigor of the University Accreditation Program (UAP). The CIA was very proactive in working with all accredited universities in developing an adapted framework at the onset of the pandemic to ensure smooth continuity and thoroughness of the program. While accredited courses must adhere to the UAP Policy, all existing UAP guidelines were reflective of a traditional, on-campus delivery of education and assessments. With all university exams going online after mid-March, this brought a whole new dimension of considerations that had to be applicable within a very short time frame. Through extensive dialogue, universities advised the CIA on the measures implemented to address the situation in terms of syllabus coverage and preservation of academic integrity. Universities unequivocally leveraged technology to administer assessments, using examination platforms to change or permute questions, publish exams over a limited time frame, and time stamp them.

The External Examiner – a crucial role

Supported by a CIA Staff Actuary, the External Examiners (EE) are outside FCIAs hired to perform an independent annual review of the accredited university courses offered during the last academic year. Usually conducted on site and face-to-face, such a format was not possible in the Spring of 2020. As a result, the EE audits for 2019–2020 were performed entirely online. Required documentation such as detailed grade distribution, exam scripts, and anonymized sample student copies were all rendered available through a secure server. All meetings with faculty and university management were held through videoconference. An essential part of UAP, the EE process was even more important for 2019–2020 in assessing university courses for purposes of accreditation in a remote context.

As a safeguard, the CIA decided with universities that no exam credit using courses completed in the winter 2020 term would be processed until completion of the EE process during fall 2020. To date, audits have been completed with eight universities, with the remaining three to occur during fall 2020.

On remote online assessments, the EEs observed that universities not only incorporated technology to produce differing exams with restricted completion time, but also designed in-depth questions as if exams were open-book, ensuring that questions differed from reference material.

To enhance academic integrity, students had to sign honor statements, attesting that the work was completed independently and in accordance with the applicable rules.

In addition to noting all these controls, the EEs performed an in-depth analysis of the individual grades comparing the pre/post COVID-19 terms (summer 2019, fall 2019, winter 2020). One of the main statistics analyzed was the proportion of students achieving the minimum required grade for each course. For the eight visited universities, the average proportion observed in 2019–2020 in a single course remained practically at the same level as the previous year at around 49%. As UAP credit for one exam credit can require up to four courses, candidates must achieve the minimum grade in all required courses to be able to apply for a credit.

All in all, numbers support that thoroughness of the program prevailed in the context of remote learning and assessment.

The EEs were pleased to observe that innovative methods were used such as computer-based exams including computer coding in R, modelling, and report writing. In the university environment, students also have access to courses in the areas of predictive analytics, data science, and big data, where they can expand the application of actuarial science. Some actuarial programs also include mandatory courses in corporate finance, accounting, economics, computer science, and English communication.

Some numbers and facts on the UAP

Briefly, for readers who are less familiar with the UAP, the program currently enables candidates to earn up to, and any of, six Associate-level exam credits (P/1, SRM, FM/2, IFM/3F, LTAM, and STAM) toward ACIA and FCIA qualification through accredited university education, subject to meeting minimum grades established by the CIA.

Candidates must successfully complete every other exam and educational activity for which they do not use UAP credits to qualify as ACIA and FCIA. Specifically, at the Fellowship level where no UAP credits exist – like all FCIAs, any FCIA candidates using UAP credits must complete all Fellow level exams, modules, educational activities, and experience requirements.

Since its inception, the CIA has granted close to 1,100 exam credits to over 650 candidates. The CIA Head Office is closely tracking membership movement in general, including members who use UAP exam credits to qualify as an ACIA and FCIA. To date, the CIA counts 86 ACIAs and 31 FCIAs who used at least one UAP credit. While these represent a small group of members, analysis of UAP members show a decrease in travel time of about 50%, both at the ACIA and the FCIA level.

Eleven universities across the country are fully accredited by the CIA, with a 12th university who recently expressed the firm intention of obtaining CIA accreditation in the very near future.

Alive and well, university accreditation is a model used by other major actuarial organizations around the world such as in the United Kingdom, Australia, and South Africa. When establishing UAP in 2012, the CIA joined the global trend in actuarial education and qualification.

Looking toward the future

“You will either step forward into growth, or you will step backward into safety.”

Abraham Maslow

Let’s take a look at what higher education may look like in 2020–2021 and beyond. While the pandemic hit the midst of the winter 2020 term, the upcoming academic year allowed for more elaborate planning of the course offerings. Universities will be offering different modes of instruction: students may have choices between in-person, hybrid, and completely online and remote education. Universities looked up to the CIA to provide more formal guidelines about remote exam administration in the context of accreditation. As a result, the CIA developed an updated version of the CIA preferred practices, to include provisions applicable to remote evaluations. These provisions were very well received by our accredited universities.

The CIA and accredited universities were able to effectively manage this sudden and major change in the realm of higher education while preserving high standards in actuarial education and assessment of knowledge.

These most challenging times sent a shock wave through the actuarial industry, including actuarial education, with ripple effects that may not tone down within a short-term horizon. Leveraging technology and adapting evaluation methods not only revealed to be effective reactive and proactive measures, but also the stepping stones toward a new reality in actuarial education. The CIA and its eleven accredited universities will continue to work hand in hand to preserve the sacrosanct rigor that is known to actuarial education.

In working toward the future, this quote by famous psychologist Abraham Maslow is truly inspirational: “You will either step forward into growth, or you will step backward into safety.”

This article originally appeared in the CIA (e)Bulletin.

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