The financial crisis shocked business schools. Many commentators said their teaching had influenced banks and investors and contributed to the crisis.
Now, there is a certain amount of soul-searching going on, with some institutions altering degree programmes to emphasise the importance of the wider economic context and the risks involved in financial engineering.
A number of established business schools have revamped their curriculums since the crash. Some, such as HEC Paris and Rutgers University in New Jersey have added courses in ethics and governance to try to address the excesses some blame for the downturn.
To make room many schools have reduced or eliminated managerial accounting requirements, which explain how the numbers are put together.
At the Graduate School of Business of Columbia University in New York, Stephen Penman is working with senior administrators to focus core courses on fundamentals, urging a return to the principles of “value investing” articulated by Benjamin Graham, an influential former professor.
“Financial models are deceptively precise, scientific, and look like something that gives you a licence to play with mirrors,” says Prof Penman. “And you can’t assume that prices will behave in the future as they have in the past.”
Part of the problem is that students paying some $180,000 for an MBA expect to be taught how to make money. They have less interest in discussing the ambiguity of the assumptions behind financial models.
Offering the specialised training that students need to land investment banking jobs and educating them effectively to connect the dots across disciplines as varied as operations management, statistics, and marketing can be challenging.
“It’s the main gap we see in business schools, and it’s hard to change,” says Trevor Harris, a Columbia professor and former head of Morgan Stanley’s global valuation and accounting team. “Most faculty members are not equipped to teach or research across disciplines and many companies are looking for people equipped with specialised tools.”
The demands of employers, such as investment banks, contribute to the problem.
“In addition to an MBA, they want you to have experience in their industry,” says Rebecca Mincy, senior associate director of Columbia’s alumni career services. This trend is unlikely to change while investment banks believe they do not have time to train new hires and want them to be useful from day one.
The University of Cambridge launched its Master of Finance degree in September 2008, just as Lehman Brothers was collapsing. With opportunities in investment banking already disappearing, the university’s Judge Business School knew it needed to do things a bit differently.
Master’s students at the school study financial history, so they can see the patterns and variations in boom-and-bust cycles over time.
They also examine financial systems in other parts of the world – China, Germany and Japan, for example, – with the aim of a broader view than the US-centric one of many business management texts.
The programme also emphasises the fragility of the foundations of finance theory, cautioning students against blindly using risk models. One Judge professor says that as a discipline, finance is where medicine was 500 years ago – if you went to see a doctor you were just as likely to be killed as cured.
Today, Cambridge’s degree attracts many applicants from middle-income nations such as China or Brazil who want to go back home to jobs in dynamic and interesting financial institutions.
Simon Taylor, the programme director, says: “Commercial banking overexpanded and is shrinking in the west, but in the developing world, it’s expanding and the opportunities are enormous.”
While Judge is preparing students for the wider world, New Jersey’s Stevens Institute of Technology is aiming squarely at Wall Street with its new quantitative finance programme.
The degree, launched two years after the crash, trains undergraduates in computer science and quantitative methods for algorithmic trading, the finance and accounting that underpin them, as well as the specifics of regulation, securities law and valuation methods.
Advanced students can go on to create asset bubble detectors or develop their own credit-rating systems.
The institute is proud of graduates, saying their financial knowledge gives them an edge over Ivy League computer scientists competing for jobs at Goldman Sachs and other top banks.
George Calhoun, the programme director, says: “Finance carries about twice the weight of manufacturing in the US economy, yet we have only recently begun to apply science and engineering methods to manage and control it. It’s all about understanding how to deal with new forms of risk.”