Stirling University MA provides clear course to fintech success

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Promoted by University of Stirling

The new degree will build on academic strengths in data and analytics to equip graduates with skills for fintech sector.

When Kevin Swingler designed a Masters programme in fintech, he had a clear vision of what he wanted to deliver.

Swingler worked with Scottish tech start-up Neural Innovation at the cutting-edge of machine learning software (looking at areas such as fraud detection) back in the 1990s – a time when many of us were still mastering email and had little or no idea of the pace and scale of the tech revolution to come.

“I looked back at what I would like to have known then – and at what kind of skills would send bright young people into today’s world better equipped to succeed,” says Swingler, programme director of the University of Stirling’s MSc in financial technology, which will welcome its first student cohort this September.

The course seemed a natural step for an institution already offering a Masters programme in computing for financial markets.

“That course had been running for a while and was more traditional – training software engineers to go into financial institutions, not what you would recognise now as fintech,” Swingler explains.

The mixture of computing science and investment theory had seen numbers dip so, in September 2014, the university launched an MSc in big data.

“I put the course together from scratch and it’s done really well,” says Swingler.

“We then saw a chance to update some of our older Masters programmes, focus on our strengths in data and analytics and create refreshed, up-to-date content. Fintech seemed a natural fit.”

Although final numbers for the MSc in financial technology are not yet fixed, Swingler expects 20 to 25 students and is “very happy” with that for the first cohort.

Those taking the programme, which can be done full-time for one year or part-time for two, will follow a wide-ranging curriculum combining technical computing with financial knowledge and entrepreneurial skills.

“We went to financial institutions and recruitment companies (including HSBC and MBN Recruitment Solutions) to ask what an ideal fintech CV should look like – and designed a programme with a strong focus on employability,” says Swingler.

“We envisaged a journey for students and tried to build the course around that. We came up with a very long list, which we had to cut down.

“We wanted students who didn’t have a computing background to be able to do it.

“Our hope is that students will arrive with a wide range of skillsets and we will be able to fill the gaps.

“They will also need to know about banking, regulation and ethics and those things have been built into the course.”

Swingler says business skills have been a crucial component of the MSc Big Data and will play a similarly important role in the MSc Big Data.

He says the arrival of open banking with PSD2 (the Second Payment Services Directive) is a significant development.

PSD2 means financial institutions must open payments infrastructure and customer data assets to third parties who can then develop payments and information services for customers.

Swingler says: “PSD2 creates a real opportunity for small start-ups to create apps, design a particular technology or find a niche for themselves in some aspect of what is currently considered big business banking – perhaps a new way of organising lending or aggregating accounts.

“Our students need to know about innovation, management and planning a start-up – those skills that allow you to take an idea and really do something with it,” says Swingler.

“There are many steps between having an idea and sitting in your first office chair in your new fintech start-up.

“My own background was in a tech start-up and I went through that whole process of creating a product, approaching investors and getting funding, so I have a good handle on the skillset I’d love to have had.

“Although some of our MSc Big Data cohort will go into large financial institutions, I think a lot will be in that start-up space.”

Swingler says it is crucial that the new fintech course is driven by data: “It’s not enough to design a nice new app, it needs to be based on data-driven artificial intelligence (AI) or do something special to interact with the customer or investor.

“Successful businesses will add value by leveraging the data the customers allow them access to.

“At the same time, we need to ensure students have the technical skills to develop an app and to understand data science and AI.

“We want to send well-rounded people out into the world at the end of the course – people who will fit well into a small business because they understand business and understand what the tech team are talking about.

“They will need to manage innovation, growth and risk. They will need to deal with investors, present their ideas and their business plans, forge partnerships and attract the best talent.

“That’s the picture in my head – to produce more people to be what I’d like to have been.”

Swingler thinks universities looking to be part of the fintech community in Scotland have plenty of space to carve out a niche.

“It’s about where the initial impetus comes from; at Stirling University, it was the computer science department and students will be based here but will do parts of the course in the management school.

“Strathclyde were the first to offer a fintech course; that came from the business school and has more of a financial focus. It’s just about a slightly different emphasis.

“Every university has a big data course and they are all managing to attract students. I think fintech can be the same.”

Around half the big data students at Stirling are from outside Scotland and Swingler expects the fintech cohort to be similar.

He says: “They come here because they see something interesting happening. It’s not just one university offering a fintech course, it’s the bigger picture.

“In tech generally, and in fintech in particular, Scotland is punching above its weight. Scottish universities have been fast to pick this up and run with it.

“I’d like to think in a couple of years’ time that FinTech Scotland will have become a successful hub, like the Data Lab has been for data science.

“The Data Lab has been excellent for private business and the education sector; I can see something similar happening with FinTech Scotland.

“I want the University of Stirling to interact with large and small businesses to find placements, to be integrated with the fintech community.

“FinTech Scotland can be the portal, the enabler.

“Getting into the global top five fintech hubs is ambitious, but you need ambition.

“In some places, you’d smirk at an ambition to get into the top five, but not Scotland.

“We’ve shown we can do these things and in many ways, Scotland was doing fintech before it was called fintech.”

So where does Swingler see the biggest fintech opportunities in Scotland?

“I’d say it’s on the AI side of things, not just another wave of automation moving through the big banks. That’s not where I see really interesting stuff happening.

“I think it’s when we have proper intelligent agents who can act on our behalf. That’s not far into the future.

“I think I will have a robo-financial adviser which I can set free on the internet to process vast quantities of data and select the best products available, knowing where I am in my life and what I want for the future.

“Three or four years ago, that would have just sounded like a nice story; now it’s something we can actually do.

“That also offers financial services companies a new way to interact effectively with customers – and gives customers a power they don’t now have, to choose the best products without having to do all the work.

“I think fintech can democratise the way that people can make their financial decisions, and make them more effectively in terms of cost and time.”

So what would constitute success for the MSc Big Data at Stirling?

“In five years, I’d like us to have repeated the success of the MSc Big Data.

“Obviously, we need student numbers, but it’s also about where students end up.

“Some of our big data students are in small tech companies.

“We have a growing alumni doing very interesting things.

“Some have gone abroad, but more have stayed in Scotland than I’d have expected.

“That’s opened my eyes to how many exciting small tech companies we have in Scotland – including one robotics company in the dairy sector, which is something I wouldn’t necessarily have come across.”

Swingler says a number of overseas students from the big data programme have settled in Scotland after getting jobs here, while there are also opportunities for Stirling to share its expertise globally in different ways.

Swingler has recently been to Oman to deliver a big data course and he sees opportunities to build on this success, both in big data and fintech.

Another example, perhaps, of Scotland punching above its weight.

Matter of trust

Kevin Swingler says he understands public concerns about open banking and personal data.

“It has been around a while, but the idea of data as a currency has really come to the fore, especially after the big stories in the news,” he says.

“Every day, I buy a whole bunch of services using my personal data as currency because I would sooner do that than pay in money.

“I don’t mind doing that, but some people do mind – and it’s a massive challenge for new start-ups in this area to ensure the public has confidence and trust in their products.

“Modern financial service start-ups have to work very hard to get the trust of customers. They need to show they are trustworthy and their technology is trustworthy too.

“The challenge is that to be successful in a disruptive technology (which is what we are angling towards at Stirling), you have to break some rules.

“However, in banking there are some rules that you cannot break, to ensure you have the trust and confidence of customers.

“New companies win when they break the right rules. In banking, more than almost any other field, it is important to know which rules can be broken and which cannot.”

For more information about the University of Stirling's MSc Big Data, visit their website