June 18, 2012 12:25 am

Changes come in response to criticism

Employees illustration, PS352X

The crisis of 2008 and 2009 both posed a problem and created an opportunity for business schools and financial training companies.

On the one hand, the top US MBA programmes were castigated because they educated some of the most powerful people in the banking industry, blamed for the crisis. On the other, the financial meltdown highlighted the need for a better understanding of the way markets operate and, by extension, the need for more training.

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Against this background, the demand for training has risen in recent years.

At the CFA Institute, a US-based professional body that runs the influential Chartered Financial Analyst qualification, 220,000 would-be analysts will sit examinations this year, up 5 per cent on last year.

The biggest growth is in previously undeveloped markets, such as India and China, says Tom Robinson, managing director of education for the CFA Institute.

Scott Rostan, chief executive of Training the Street, a company that provides financial education for Wall Street employees and business school students, sees demand closer to home too. “At the start of the financial crisis, enrolment dropped off, but in 2010 we saw a noticeable return.”

However, both report that the numbers in the US have slowed this year. “Hiring numbers are flat compared with 2011,” says Mr Rostan. “But I will say that optimism is better than six to nine months ago.” Mr Robinson also reports minimal growth in the US, but says Europe is still buoyant. “One of the things that surprised me is that in the UK the number of candidates is up by 18 per cent.”

While Mr Rostan believes it is the opportunity for personal development and education that attracts students to Training the Street, Mr Robinson thinks the portable nature of the CFA is important, especially in Asia.

“In China and India, there is a thirst for credentials. People want letters after their name, but also realise that financial instruments are complicated.”

The CFA now updates its curriculum every year to take account of the changing environment, says Mr Robinson.

At business school the biggest curriculum changes have been in ethics courses, which most schools have made compulsory.

Back in 2009, in reaction to the crisis, thousands of MBA graduates across the world, led by a group at Harvard Business School, swore to comply with ethical business standards and signed an MBA oath. In the first three years of the MBA Oath, 6,000 MBAs signed the pledge. But enthusiasm has waned and in the past year only about 1,000 more have joined.

Enthusiasm for ethics courses is also under scrutiny.

Ismail Erturk, senior lecturer in banking at Manchester Business School, in the UK, says: “Business schools have put in more courses on ethics and social responsibility instead of being critical of the financial theories of how markets function. We have seen the rise of behavioural finance, but I don’t think this goes far enough.”

Mr Ertuk believes the answer is to introduce other social sciences such as sociology, anthropology and politics into the mix.

When a small group of bankers work in a group together, all sorts of issues come into play that have little relation to efficient markets theory, he says.

“Sociologists have better tools than economists for understanding these small groups in banks. Other factors intervene, such as the power they want to hold on to, and the higher bonuses they are going to get.”

For those who do opt for a degree qualification at a business school, the traditional route in the US has been through the finance track of a two-year MBA programme.

In Europe, the preferred option has been a specialised Masters in Finance degree, a title that can cover a wide range of topics and styles.

At Essec, a French business school, for example, which teaches its Master's degree in Financial Techniques in both France and Singapore, the emphasis is on the technical, says Michel Baroni, academic director of the programme.

“I think there is a real need for technical financial training. I think we are the most technical programme in Singapore.” Most students come from an engineering background. “Our reputation for training engineers in France is spreading to Asia.”

At the University of Oxford, the approach is different. There, the MSc in Financial Economics is taught jointly by the Saïd Business School and the economics department and it is, says John Thanassoulis, the degree director, “like a technical MBA”.

The emphasis on the economics context is strong, which means, says Prof Thanassoulis, that graduates are equipped to understand what is happening when the market changes. “They can contextualise from day one.”

The programme emphasises the responsibility of finance as well as the technicalities, he says. “I think courses like this are incredibly important to teach about finance and the responsibility of those in finance. When things go wrong, it affects real people. When banks fail, it is real people who are impacted and real businesses that lay off people.”

The economic context also forms the backdrop at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, (HKUST), which jointly teaches an executive Master of Science in Global Finance degree for experienced professionals with New York University’s Stern School of Business.

Mark Seasholes, a finance professor at HKUST, says many of those enrolled on the programme want to figure out the bigger picture. “Many companies want more than just the maths. We want to teach students how to deal with the problems that are coming up in five years.”

With the increase in certified courses and portable qualifications such as degrees, one of the problems might be banks’ own learning and development portfolios, says Jon Terry, global financial services HR practice leader at PwC, a consultancy.

A PwC survey of graduates working in financial services in more than 75 countries showed a significant mismatch between what graduates expect and what employers offer.

The survey of “millennials” (those born between 1980 and 2000), showed that personal development was a significant issue, with the requirement for rapid advancement, constant feedback and interesting tasks, regardless of where the respondents worked.

“There are some very consistent messages here. I was surprised,” says Mr Terry.

If financial services companies do not want to lose their best and brightest recruits when the job market picks up, they need to change the culture now, he warns, to address both the commercial needs of the business and the individual development needs of the employee.

“They have to do this explicitly and implicitly. Everyone has different aspirations and different needs.”

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