As the industry looks to increase the professionalism of its members, a new motor finance qualification,the Certificate for Automotive Finance Specialists, is launching. Jonathan Minter caught up with Gary Sutcliffe of the ifs to discuss who the qualification is for

Ever since the financial crisis, companies have been under greater scrutiny – both from the new regulator and from a more cynical public. Therefore, companies have had to look for new ways to ensure they’re looking out for their customers, and make sure their staff are well trained.

As a way of ensuring people working in the industry are both confident and competent when talking about the industry, the Finance & Leasing Association (FLA) has recruited the services of ifs University College (ifs) to create a new qualification, the Certificate for Automotive Finance Specialists (CertAutoFS).

Gary Sutcliffe, senior relationship director at ifs explains: "The buzzword across all financial sectors, motor finance and everything else, is professionalism – that’s being motivated by a drive to raise professional standards and knowledge."

One way of improving levels of professionalism is to bring in a qualification, something the FLA already had with its SAF. However, Sutcliffe says there was a desire from the FLA and the industry for something a level above this.

He says: "SAF filled a need. It got a lot for people to a level of knowledge where they were competent to advise customers, where they felt confident in their knowledge, and it was generally recognised throughout the sector that people who had done that SAF test at least knew what they were talking about.

"But the regulatory landscape has changed over the last few years – consumer credit now falls under the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA). So motor finance is now under the microscope in terms of having a regulator which is now asking if people are getting sound financial advice. Both the FLA and the motor finance industry recognised this, so the FLA approached us and asked if we could help them to develop something, if they were going to do something beyond SAF."

Next step

The premise was for a new qualification as a ‘next step’ for those in the industry after SAF, as opposed to replacing SAF. The new qualification was to be run by the ifs, as an external body, and sat in exam centres with independent invigilators.

"That was where it came about from. It’s taken us over a year to work with the industry and the FLA to agree the syllabus, the content of the qualification, the size of the qualification, the level of it, how it should be examined, and the award that should be given at the end of it," Sutcliffe says.

It was also eventually agreed that the new qualification would be a Level 3 type qualification. This level is roughly parallel to the level of knowledge expected of someone sitting their A levels (though this is a rough approximation).

Part of the reason for settling on this is that, according to Sutcliffe, the original SAF qualifications are of a Level 2 type. Another industry, the mortgage industry, now requires practitioners to hold a Level 3 qualification.

This acted as a bit of a guide for the FLA and the ifs. Sutcliffe says: "When we looked at the sector we felt people giving finance advice for buying a car is broadly equivalent to someone borrowing a mortgage. For many people the mortgage is the biggest loan you’ll take out and the car is the second. In terms of the level of knowledge required, we felt it sat alongside somebody givingmainstream mortgage advice to the vast majority of people. That was the level we agreed it should be set at."

Level 4 awards would be roughly equivalent to a first-year degree programme, which would initially be too big of a jump from the existing SAF exams, Sutcliffe says. The CertAutoFS is meant as an advanced SAF award. SAF is still the entry level qualification which the business managers, who sit in the dealers, should get to keep their knowledge up to date.

"We’re aiming this for the layer who sit above those first-line business managers. It’s the finance managers in the dealerships, the finance managers working in the lenders and the motor credit companies."

The award is structured into three parts. Sutcliffe explains: "The first section of the syllabus looks at the marketplace and the main products used within motor finance. The second moves onto the regulation of motor finance. This will be the section where they’ll understand what the FCA principles are, what the consumer credit rules are, what the rules around advertising are, etc. The third unit is very much around approaches to customer service and management within motor finance. So it’s about what are customer needsand how do you address them.

"What we’re trying to achieve is that people who’ve gone through all three units will be fully rounded motor finance specialists.They’ll understand the marketplace, the regulations, the products and their key customers."

As a large amount of the new award will be based on the principles-based FCA, the ifs had to think carefully about how this could fit with a distance learning, exam-based qualification. According to Sutcliffe: "People need to understand the principles, then think about how those principles apply to the job they’re doing in practice. So what we can do is create scenarios and case studies, which will help people to understand whether they’re adhering to the principle, the spirit of the principle, or whether they’re skirting around the edges, even actually going against it.

"Most qualifications are knowledge-based; people need to understand and know what the rules are. But what we’re trying to do is: show that it’s not just knowing the rules, it’s thinking about and understanding how those rules apply to you, and how you can operate within those rules."

Industry involvement

In order to develop the CertAutoFS, the ifs worked with people from the industry to create the syllabus. These came from a range of companies, including captive finance houses, such as BMW Financial Services and independent lenders, for example Northridge Finance and Black Horse.

After an initial workshop created an idea of what the syllabus could look like, the ifs recruited a number of industry volunteers, who worked as exam question writers and authors for the learning materials, as well as people who reviews the materials and

According to Sutcliffe, the FLA and the SAF steering group (a group within the FLA) were very supportive in identifying potentially willing volunteers both to attend the initial workshop and to act as the volunteers on the material.

The volunteers worked with a team from the ifs, who then used the knowledge of the authors in order to edit everything into a format which would work as an online learning course.

Sutcliffe adds: "One of the first things we did was find a chief examiner. That person has the ultimate final sign-off on the materials and questions. And we were grateful that Kevin Watts from Ford Credit wanted to be involved in this. He’s now our chief examiner."


The course is a distance learning course. Initial registration takes place online, after which students can access all the learning material. The material can be viewed online, downloaded or printed, depending on the user’s preference.

Describing the learning materials, Sutcliffe says: "It’s knowledge-based, so there are facts, information, case studies, scenarios, activities, questions and things to do at the end of each chapter to self-test. Once they’ve worked their way through the materials set, they’ll have access to a specimen exam paper, so they can see the type of questions they will be faced with in the exam. They can mark these themselves and check if they’re ready for the exam."

Although people can go through the material in any order they choose, he recommends people go through it in the correct order, using the sample tests to identify weaknesses to go back to, as the course has been designed in a linear fashion.

People on the course have 12 months to take the exam, and can take it at any time during that period. The exam itself is multiple choice, with a separate section for each of the three parts of the syllabus. In order to pass the overall exam, people will have to pass each session individually, and the pass mark is 70%. Those who fail a section will only have to resit the section, or sections, they fail in order to obtain the qualification.

Sutcliffe says: "For a Level 3 qualification, you would expect anywhere between 60% and 90% of those sitting to pass on the first attempt, as a rule of thumb, so not everybody will pass on their first attempt."


The ifs runs a number of financial Level 3 qualifications and Sutcliffe has noticed a number a trends among experienced people who have failed these courses. They tend to think: "I’ve been in the industry for X years; I know what I’m talking about; I don’t need to read the materials; I’ll just go and sit the exam."

Often there will be a number of parts of the course these people won’t know – either they’ve forgotten some of the details of something that’s no longer a core part of their job, or perhaps the regulation has moved on, and they’ve yet to catch up.

So while it’s recommended everyone taking the exam does study the course beforehand, those with a good level of knowledge or experience are likely to take a lot less time preparing themselves. The recommended time for studying for the exam is 135 hours.

However Sutcliffe says: "The 135 hours number generally means somebody brand new into the sector, starting from scratch, who knows nothing about motor finance. Most people taking this, I expect, will have some experience. If they’ve done the SAF test, they’ll have some experience, and they won’t take anywhere near that time."

Looking ahead, Sutcliffe hints that, if the award is well received and the FLA and the industry indicate a desire for it, the ifs would be willing to develop another, higher-level qualification, possibly going down the route of chartered status.

This would be the ultimate ambition of the ifs, though. For now Sutcliffe says: "I hope this will become the benchmark in the industry. I hope people who attain it will be proud they’ve achieved it, will see it as a help to their career aspirations and that ultimately people who are recruiting for those management positions will start to look for it on people’s CVs."