Flexible options are at the centre of planning for new Masters degree, finds David Lee
As more Scottish universities launch fintech courses, they all seek to find that unique selling-point (USP) to set them apart.
The University of Glasgow is the latest institution to move into the fintech space and although its course is not planned to launch until September next year, it has found that USP: giving students clear options to follow a specific path of their own choosing.
“We are in the process of designing the new Masters programme, at postgraduate level, and we started with the idea of a fintech programme,” explains Dr Evangelos Vagenas-Nanos, senior lecturer in accounting and finance at the university’s Adam Smith Business School.
“As we did our investigations, it became clear that everybody has a slightly different view of what fintech is and can be.
“As a result, following discussions with colleagues, we started to formulate a technology management programme.”
The first semester of the MSc will have core modules in technology management, information management and legal aspects of technology and information.
“Students will then be able to select different routes, which will include a fintech path, but also medtech.
“This is a genuine collaboration across the university schools of business, law and computing, and this is also reaching into life sciences and medicine with the medtech option, which gets into digital health and medical devices,” says Vagenas-Nanos.
“I think our course is unique in the level of choice it gives – because we want our students to be adaptive to change. We expect them to come from across the world and be from diverse backgrounds.”
Dr Ramona Blanes, lecturer in international business and services at the university, has also been involved in designing the course.
She says: “We are keen to allow students to choose the elective most relevant to them and not say, ‘This is what we have got,’ and push them down a very specific path.
“They might want to go into machine learning or artificial intelligence, or look at crypto-currencies, and that’s fine, but we want to offer real flexibility and very diverse pathways.
“We hope to produce the recruits needed by the financial services industry as it changes its practices, but also students who want to start up their own business.
“Even in that start-up community, there are very different motivations; those who want to make money and those with a social purpose, who want to design ethical products because they think banks need to do things differently.
“We don’t need just one type of person, we need that diverse spectrum.
“We are in the Adam Smith Business School and it’s about capturing the spirit of Smith. He went from The Theory of Moral Sentiments to The Wealth of Nations. These are the values we are trying to portray and teach.”
Although Glasgow University does not have a formal fintech course yet, there is a lot of fintech-type innovation going on. Events to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the university’s MBA programme heard from Paul Grady of successful Scottish fintech business Castlight.
Meanwhile, the university’s Fintech Society cuts across different schools and holds regular events for its 100-plus members, with both external speakers as well as society members talking about their research.
“There’s some very interesting stuff coming out and a lot of members of the society want to come up with their own fintech innovations,” says Blanes.
She highlights alumni of the business school who have already created their own fintech businesses, including Orca Money, a peer-to-peer lending platform, and Coinstrats, which uses scientific research techniques to power investment decisions in financial markets.
Blanes is particularly excited by EmPowered FinTech, set up in Botswana by Eunice Ntobedzi, a 2016 graduate of the business school.
The business aims to provide safe, renewable energy supplies (and associated payment mechanisms) to people who have not traditionally accessed financial services or safe energy.
“I really believe fintech can be a force for positive social change and I think EmPowered FinTech really shows that,” says Blanes.
“I was recently in Indonesia and I see reverse innovation from developing countries; they are looking at fintech very much as a social good to tackle inequalities and they are bringing tat mindset back over here.”
Georgios Panos, professor of finance at the university, is one of the leading UK academics studying financial literacy, a major global policy agenda being supported by institutions, such as the World Bank and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
“There is exciting work around financial literacy, financial inclusion and the relevant enabling forces fintech offers in personal finance,” Panos says.
“There are challenges in digital finance, which need dealing with, such as indulging people to consume more and the opportunity for children to buy more products very easily.
“We are looking at ways to make platforms compatible with relevant training which can also act as a cooling-off period for both adults and the young prior to them swimming in the world of fintech applications.
“Funded by an EU Horizon 2020 project, we are creating a financial-awareness platform called PROFIT [PROmoting FInancial awareness and sTability] to tackle such issues, which we envisage sharing with educational institutions and social trading platforms but which will be available to anyone.
“Fintech definitely has the opportunity to do positive things for financial services if we can get the safeguards in place.”
Vagenas-Nanos stresses the need for the university to work closely with industry and says there are already links in place, which will strengthen as plans for the course take shape.
“We will bring in practitioners to help enrich the course – that is crucial,” he says.
“Ramona has 20 years of experience in corporate and investment banking and we have another staff member with 30 years’ experience in retail banking.
“That means we have the skills to explain what current financial sector operations look like to provide the context of what fintech is about – and the contacts to bring in practitioners from the field.”
Blanes adds: “Technology is changing rapidly but the pace of change is faster than before.
“It’s about learning and relearning new skills all the time and being prepared to go in new directions.
“But rather than looking at the threat from fintech, let’s look at the opportunity.”
Blanes thinks it is vital there is an ethical element to any fintech course: “Fintech would just be another financial sector unless you put ethics into it.
“One example is bitcoin; it helps a lot of people who do not have access to banking and making payments, to gain access to water or energy, for example. There are very positive elements to it but we also know it is being used on the Dark Web.
“Everyone has their own morality but there are lines and it’s important to discuss those lines and when they are breached.
“Also, people like Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and Bill Gates have all warned about the potential problems presented by artificial intelligence and about maintaining safeguards – and that’s something we need to remind our students about.”
Blanes recognises issues over public trust and confidence in areas like robo-advisory services and thinks there needs to be a wider cultural understanding of the problem.
“The mistrust starts when a consumer doesn’t understand something, but the machine is pressing ahead and doing it,” she says.
“Maybe we should put in options where you can say, ‘I need more explanation of how this was computed,’ or, ‘Why did you recommend this product?’.
“A better understanding of how and why specific actions are taken could reduce that mistrust.”
SCOTLAND’S FIRST FINTECH DOCORATE
The University of Glasgow is collaborating with both Strathclyde and Stirling universities to deliver Scotland’s first PhD in fintech.
Tatja Karkkainen’s research is lead supervised by Glasgow’s Adam Smith Business School and co-mentored by Strathclyde and Stirling.
Georgios Panos, professor of finance at Glasgow, says: “It’s a very interesting and experimental collaboration which we believe is the first of its kind.
“It came about after meetings in the Scottish Business School Forum, in which it was recognised that, in an emerging field like fintech, the PhD was best delivered by joining together and pooling our expertise.
“Having worked in the financial sector for a good number of years, Karkkainen started her research with examining the market for crypto-currencies because that is what captured her attention.
“Her future works will also be looking at other applications of blockchain technology and social trading platforms too.”
More generally, Panos recognises that a major fintech challenge stems from the fact that, sometimes, it seems like computer scientists, economists and finance professionals do not speak the same language.
“However, we are starting to understand how better communication can be facilitated and where there are mutual interests,” he says.
With the Glasgow course (and others) seeking to produce students with a range of technical, financial and entrepreneurial skills, what kind of fintech world will future students emerge into?
Ramona Blanes welcomes the ambition of FinTech Scotland, but is worried the jam could be spread a little too thinly.
“It would be helpful for us to know more about where Scotland wishes to position itself in the fintech world. Where will we specialise? We need to find a niche.
“There is a lot happening in places like London and Singapore and maybe we shouldn’t concentrate on areas where others are so strong – or try to steal skilled people from the City.
“The Prudential Regulation Authority, Financial Conduct Authority and Bank of England are all in London and maybe we shouldn’t just try to grasp the same piece of pie; that way, we could lose opportunities in Scotland.
“It would be good to elaborate further with FinTech Scotland about where specific niche opportunities might lie.”
For more information about the University of Glasgow’s fin tech opportunities, visit the website