The future of finance: Are universities prepared?

Feb 02, 2019

Producing graduates for the world of finance is an expensive, specialised and time-consuming business. Can universities keep pace with the requirements of a rapidly changing industry?

Financial services needs a highly-skilled workforce and higher education institutions are struggling to keep up, especially as persistent technological progress disrupts financial institutions and the markets and societies in which they operate.

At the heart of the problem lies a traditional university system that can only produce a relatively small number of graduates for the sector through programmes that may take three to four years to complete. To compound this, universities are expensive and highly selective, which effectively bars many from getting the training they need.

Professor David Taylor, Director of the African Institute of Financial Markets and Risk Management (AIFMRM) at UCT, is considering the long-term. He doubts that the current structure and cost of a traditional postgraduate degree is either effective or sustainable. 

AIFMRM is one of the country’s pre-eminent postgraduate training facilities offering three specialised Master’s degrees that produce roughly 60 highly-skilled graduates for the financial services sector each year. The Institute’s MPhil specialising in Mathematical Finance was recently ranked 59th worldwide, and Taylor says that AIFMRM works closely with industry to ensure that the graduates they are delivering are aligned with industry needs.

“We know that AIFMRM’s offering is excellent for current financial industry needs,” he says, “but as a forward-thinking institution, we need to be contesting the status quo too. Perhaps it is time for industry and educators to assess what will be needed in the future and to find a model that will be affordable, accessible, efficient and sustainable.”

Is a traditional degree sufficient for an exponential world?

Akin to Taylor, Colin Iles, consultant and CxO of the Absa Equinox Leadership Centre, believes the traditional degree system may be too slow to respond to changes in any industry. “Educational content has to be curated in a safe and structured way, with approved credits and standardisation – it is a slow system, and there is a danger of taught-content falling behind what is relevant,” he says.

Iles suggests that some of today’s necessary skills have already deviated from those acquired in a traditional degree programme. He says, “The FinTech movement has given rise to thousands of small entrepreneurial companies trying to solve various problems in unique and differentiated ways. Instead of a comprehensive degree that tries to cover every economic model and mathematical proof, you may become more relevant, quicker, by focusing on what you need to learn for that particular space and time. Then apply your knowledge and learn faster by actually building something in an entrepreneurial environment.”

Iles believes the way forward involves re-defining the purpose of the modern university. “If its purpose is to prepare people to be valuable citizens in the global economy, then the traditional university model, which has been in place for hundreds of years, may be outdated for a world that is exponential.”

He adds that universities could offer more customised, shorter sets of focussed learnings, at scale, online. “Even in complex topics, online learning is proving to be highly effective, with rapid feedback, self-paced learning and class interaction.”

Online education is a rapidly growing field. Class Central, which curates a catalogue of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) recently reported there are currently 11 400 MOOCs provided by over 900 universities, catering to 101 million students worldwide. Business and technology comprise almost 40% of the available courses. There has also been a concurrent increase in online degrees.

Blended and flexible offerings may be the solution

CEO of edX, Anant Agarwal, believes that future-proofing higher education starts with re-inventing the degree. In a recent Quartz series on the future of college, he predicted that employers will soon be searching for what diverse skills people have rather than what degree they possess. So, programmes need to become more flexible.

Agarwal imagines a future where students could, for example, combine humanities skills with tech skills, or analytical skills with design skills – building a degree for a customised skill-set. Smaller, modular credits could combine into a degree from a variety of universities.

“This will be good for higher education institutions. A college or online platform could specialise in certain subjects and offer the components of education their instructors truly excel in. When each university can focus on what it does best, both the educators and the educated will benefit,” says Agarwal.

He also notes that students pursuing on-campus degrees will benefit from this model as they will be able to augment their education with specialised, online modular content from other institutions.

Kumeshnee West, Director of Executive Education at UCT’s Graduate School of Business, agrees that technology can augment face-to-face learning – but not replace it. She advocates a balance of online and classroom learning – especially when it comes to the development of soft skills and emotional intelligence, which are key strengths needed in the workplace of the future according to the WEF Future of Jobs Report 2018.

The rise of life-long learning

Gert Kruger, Chief Risk Officer at Rand Merchant Bank, believes that institutions such as AIFMRM that provide multi-skilled graduates from a variety of academic backgrounds are the first step in keeping pace with what industry needs.

“Also, we need to teach people how to think and how to learn new skills all the time. Possibly teaching more of the soft skills – collaboration, creativity, flexibility and adaptability – may make people adaptable enough to continue learning and re-learning. Organisations need to re-skill people with higher frequency than in the past. Importantly, life-long learning needs to be organisation-wide.”

He adds that the financial industry is continually evolving, but it is challenging to anticipate how organisations – and the skills they require – need to change. However, one thing is clear – “if we do not evolve, we will stagnate. Organisations need to keep abreast of change by making ongoing incremental refinements.”

This is true for universities as well, says Professor Taylor. “Universities are well placed to use their resources and deep expertise to build on what they have, to remain relevant in the future.”

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