In the 14 years since its inception, Sofa has carved out a well deserved reputation for high standards and competence.
Around half of our 10,000 members are FPC-qualified while the other 5,000 have passed the higher AFPC exam, qualifying them for the designatory letters MSFA, ASFA or FSFA. Of course many of the FPC-qualified people are also studying for the AFPC and are on their way to higher qualifications.
Central to our thoughts throughout the merger process has been the preservation – and potential improvement – of these standards.
In particular, we have been keen to ensure that the Personal Finance Society's qualification structure developed in such a way that it would not, in any shape or form, dilute the standards of which members are rightly proud.
All involved in the merger proposals believe that the framework we have devised will not only deliver these requirements but will also boost the public's recognition of qualifications and, by association, their regard for advisers. But what will actually change?
Currently, the Chartered Insurance Institute is the sole examination body and the sole provider of examination papers for both the LIA and Sofa and this will remain the same after the merger.
The CII exam framework, which will meet the Financial Services Skills Council's own standards, will be announced shortly and should come into force in next January.
FPC-qualified advisers will not be required to take the new exam, called the Certificate in Financial Planning, although naturally they are welcome to do so. A further change will come in 2006 when the CII will modify the AFPC – due to re-named Diploma – to a modular basis, with each module assigned credit value. Designations are earned when a member reaches a specified level of total credits. CII intends to consult fully with members to ensure that the new framework is relevant to their needs.
Perhaps most important, the changing standards and terminology of the National Qualifications Framework will result in both Sofa and the LIA altering their designations.
The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which is responsible for the framework, has the task of bringing in standards for public recognition and Sofa and the LIA, merger or not, would find it difficult not to meet its requirements.
Under the new rules, the FPC will be defined as a level three qualification(certificate level in the national framework) while the AFPC in its existing or revised form will be known as a diploma, each paper being equivalent to degree standard.
This terminology is designed to be universal – even universities will recognise it. What it means is that the business community and the public will be able to discern immediately to which level an adviser is qualified.
There can be no doubt about the benefits of this. The easier it is for the public to understand the qualifications the higher their esteem for advisers will be. Who would object to that?
With this firmly in mind, the Personal Finance Society has developed an exam structure which will be clear to all. This structure, which has already been published, will be especially familiar to Sofa members – the new framework is very close to our existing one. As you can see, dilution of standards was not – and is not – an option.
In conclusion, we think the proposed merger offers advisers a way forward without watering down Sofa's values and standards.
Our core beliefs will remain but they would form an integral part of the UK's biggest professional body for financial advisers, boasting a membership more than twice that of Sofa's.
While size is not always everything, it can be in this case – we have the focus and the LIA has a host of key skills it can bring to the society.
What the industry has long needed is a clear, universal set of standards which could boost public recognition of qualifications and advisers.
That must be good for the consumer and for that reason alone I commend the merger to you. Finally, we have a body capable of delivery.
Bob Bullivant is managing director of Sofa