In April 2014 we requested feedback from our employers on a possible change to our exam schedule. Given the responses we have received, we have decided not to make this change at the current time. However we would like to explain our reasoning, both for suggesting the move in the first place and for deciding not to go ahead with the changes.
Reasons for proposing a change in exam dates
Feedback from some of our employers – in particular our single largest employer, supporting over 10% of our total number of students – had suggested that our current exam session dates (June and December) were causing significant operational difficulties.
In particular, the lead time between receiving exam results and registering for the next module is too short and is potentially going to hamper the progression of students on the qualification. We have therefore been asked to deliver results more quickly.
We are also experiencing an enormous growth in international students (whose scripts take longer to reach us). We now have the same number of exam candidates overseas as in the UK, sitting exams in 90 countries, with around 30% year on year international growth expected. Our previous exam processes will struggle to support this increased volume.
Given significant growth in student numbers, providing results more quickly is difficult. The December exam sitting poses a particular problem because of the December/January public holidays, which adds at least a week to the processing of results. To avoid this, without having to cause too disruptive a change to course provision, we felt that offering a January sitting would be the best option, hence the consultation of employers.
Overview of survey responses
We had 131 responses to our questionnaire. A brief overview of the responses to the question ‘would you support the proposed change to exam dates’ can be seen below.
47% of employers who responded confirmed the change would have no material impact on their organisation. A further 27% stated that this would be an improvement given the needs of their organisation (although most of those made the point that they were not unduly under pressure to meet the needs of the current timetable). Some also suggested that a more radical change was needed, ie not so small a shift in exam session dates – this is something that we will consider for the longer term
On the surface the responses suggest that we could go ahead with the proposed changes. However the 23% of employers who stated that this would cause real problems for their organisation is still very significant. It should also be noted that most of the employers who were happy with the changes employ 1-5 CIPFA students, whereas most of the employers who were unable to meet the needs of the proposed timetables employed at least 11 CIPFA students, with some employing many more.
The questionnaire gave the opportunity for more detailed feedback. As expected, many were concerned about January exams having an impact on morale since students would still have exams ahead of them over the Christmas period.. There were also a few concerns about the ability of trainees to focus on their roles in the preparation of budgets, which for many occurs in January, though only a handful of these concerns were raised.
Far more worrying for us was the number of students who would have been adversely impacted by the move to early July exams. A great many employers raised the issue of a clash with the leave usually arranged over the summer (both for trainees and the managers who support them), in fact this point was stressed far more than the issues associated with the timing of the winter sitting. This is a difficult issue to balance since many students often raise the same concern at our term time starting in August, they would prefer to start back in September. Of course to avoid August study means exams must be later; clearly it is impossible for us to meet all preferences of all students.
However, most of the adverse responses and even some neutral ones expressed concern about the year-end closing down of accounts happening in the summer, with several employers stating that it would not be possible for any of their trainees to sit summer exams at all under the proposed timetable. This would severely impact the time taken for students to complete the qualification in the timescales required by their employers. This feedback in particular is something too important for us to ignore.
What next for CIPFA exams?
The responses we have received suggest that the vast majority of employers are coping well with supporting their students through the CIPFA Professional Qualification under the current exam arrangements. It also shows that there are a significant number of students for whom the proposed changes would cause great difficulties in completing their studies. We therefore need to find a fairer solution to the challenges we are facing due to the huge growth in CIPFA student membership and the progression needs of our largest employers.
For now, CIPFA will continue broadly with our existing timetable, and work to provide additional support for our large employers struggling to register students to progress to the next level of their studies. We have redesigned our marking process and invested significant resource so that we are able to manage our increased workloads within our existing timescales, but without compromising on quality assurance.
We are also in the early stages of a project to move from paper-based exams to e-assessment. This will enable us to improve the security and the quality of our exams, as well as ensuring that script marking and results determination can be delivered far efficiently. We hope to be in a position to begin such assessments within the next two years. In the longer term, the move to e-assessment would enable us to refine our exams so that we would, for at least some subjects, be able to provide more than two exam sittings and perhaps even provide ‘assessments on demand’. In this way we will, in the future, be better able to meet the many and varied needs of all CIPFA students, thus providing an easier journey through the Professional Qualification to full membership.
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