Seven months on from Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's budget promise to improve the standards of insurance salesmen, the examinations are ready to begin - but doubts remain as to whether salesmen are ready to sit them. First exams for the Insurance Intermediaries Quality Assurance Scheme (IIQAS) are to be held on October 25, with the organisers expecting about 150 to 200 applicants to take part. However, the exam to qualify insurance intermediaries to sell Mandatory Provident Fund products began in August and many insurers and their salesmen are expected to make that exam their main priority. 'The MPF will be more popular than the [IIQAS] insurance exam,' said Fong Kwong-yee, head of the Continuing Professional Development Centre at the Vocational Training Centre, which is running both the IIQAS and the MPF tests. He said he had received inquiries about the IIQAS from a number of banks. The insurance companies had shown less interest to date. The IIQAS was introduced in last year's policy speech and has been developed with the co-operation of industry bodies, such as the Hong Kong Federation of Insurers, the Life Insurance Council and the General Insurance Council. A syllabus has been prepared, the structure of the exam set, and the Vocational Training Council is ready to run the exam. All those working in the industry, from chief executives down to tele-sales staff, soon will have to take it to gain their registration from the Insurance Agents Registration Board. Although there are exemptions for those who hold certain professional qualifications from Australia, New Zealand, the United States or Britain, or those who have worked in the industry for five years out of the past six, anyone entering the industry after January next year must pass the exam. For those already working in insurance, there is a two-year grace period during which they can operate through an IARB licence. The exam consists of a core module on principles and practice of insurance, with optional modules for general or long-term insurance. A $200 fee is charged for each module. The Government hopes the qualification will raise the standards of those working in the industry, many of whom work largely on commission. Commissioner of Insurance Alan Wong Chi-kong last week said the IIQAS was 'aimed at deterring people who are not serious in developing the [insurance] profession from entering into the industry'. He expected as many as 30 per cent of those taking the exam to fail. The IIQAS's compulsory paper on principles and practice of insurance will include 75 questions, mostly in multiple-choice format, and will last for two hours. The exam will cover technical issues such as classification of risk, contract law and agency law, core functions of an insurance company, the Hong Kong regulatory framework, ethical issues and the principles of insurance, including an understanding of concepts such as 'utmost good faith'. The optional papers on general insurance and long-term insurance contain 50 questions each and will last 75 minutes. The Vocational Training Council's financial services development centre is to run preparatory courses preparing insurance professionals for the course, in a programme that takes three days and costs $1,600. Most insurers, however, are organising in-house training programmes. With such demanding exams ahead, consumers can look forward to having more knowledgeable and professional insurance sales agents to deal with. Industry insiders admit that levels of knowledge and professional ethics have been low in the past - particularly among part-time insurance agents. 'The standard of some agents is poor,' said Mark Wilson, chief general manager of sales and marketing at AXA China Region. 'There are too many part-time agents.'