Financial computing MSc: Diversity gets boost at UCL

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When Christopher Clack of University College London went to pitch an idea for a postgraduate degree to a pair of financial services consultants three years ago, he had no idea it would be such an easy sell.

The degree in question is an MSc in financial computing and Mr Clack was not trying simply to raise cash but to get banks much more “intimately involved” in a masters that was to be “industry aligned”, rather than the more traditional academically-led model.

The consultants, meanwhile, were rather pleased to see Mr Clack; a group of four banks – Credit Suisse, Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley – had asked them to find a partner university for a new masters.

After examining where they recruited from, the four had realised they were all fighting for the same bright graduates who, over time, were looking increasingly less diverse and more like an army of male engineers and computer scientists.

The degree welcomed its first intake in September last year. The four partner banks helped develop and support it through joint advertising and creation of course materials. They also host students for the assessed project placements that take up three months of the degree and even teach about one quarter of the course, including all the induction training and an entire module.

On the technology side, Reuters is UCL’s partner for the programme and provides live data feeds, software and training for a “virtual trading floor” that has been set up for the students.

As for the class list, there is not a computer science graduate in sight. Arvinder Mudhar, chief technology officer of investment banking technology at Merrill Lynch, has been involved since the programme’s inception. He says the course is deliberately marketed to people without a traditional computing background with the aim of recruiting students with a “different level of creativity”.

He says the first intake of 45 students includes graduates with first degrees in more than 20 disciplines. These include journalism, law and pharmacy. Mr Mudhar adds that 20 per cent of the intake was expected to be female, but in fact the percentage is 45.

Although the admission criteria say entrants must have a good first degree in “any discipline that does not include substantial IT or computer science”, applicants do need to have proven analytical skills or experience. This is to ensure that they can cope with an intensive degree that aims to convert all suitable participants into financial IT technologists or managers.

The first two terms cover highly technical ground and are followed by exams. The third term comprises the project placement with one of the four partner banks or another financial institution.

Current students may already have a worried eye on the employment market, in light of predictions that the sector they are to join will bear the brunt of post-credit squeeze job cuts.

However, Mr Clack feels confident for them. “Although jobs are not guaranteed at the end of the projects, the banks have said that their allocated headcounts for these students are still in place,” he says.

“The advantage that these students have over other graduate recruits is that they come from diverse backgrounds and are therefore more likely to inject fresh ideas into the banks. The banks know this, and value it, especially in tough times, when it can be necessary to innovate to find a way out of trouble.”

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