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AI, machine learning, analytics, big data – and much more besides
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Fintech

AI, machine learning, analytics, big data – and much more besides 

A highly-demanding postgraduate fintech degree encompasses social and policy issues as well as the technical aspects – but there is no shortage of applicants

Fintech, as the hybrid word suggests, demands that its practitioners master two very challenging skill sets. At the very least they will need deep knowledge of one of them and a working familiarity with the other. However, tough as this challenge sounds, there seems to be no shortage of postgraduate candidates willing to take it on.

According to Ksenia Grant, Acting Director for Financial Services and Fintech Sector at the Edinburgh Futures Institute (EFI), University of Edinburgh, the EFI has had no difficulty filling the available places in its Finance Technology and Policy MSc degrees.

“This is a fintech post-graduate one-year degree. We added ‘Policy’ to the degree title to make it clear to prospective students that the degree also focuses on the social, policy and governance implications of innovative financial solutions, particularly where AI, machine learning, and big data are concerned,” Grant says.

Taylor Spears, the Programme Director heading up EFI’s fintech MSc, points out that the MSc is now in its third year and so far has always had many more applicants than it has places to offer.

“We received around 500 applications in our first year, 800 in our second year, and around 1,000 in the most recent year. We have 56 students in the programme, and so could probably have filled the course three times over with quality candidates,” he says.

Around 80 per cent of the students come from abroad, which shows just how international the workplace demand for fintech-capable candidates is.

“What we are focusing on is how to train people who have specific domain knowledge, be it in engineering, maths or finance, by exposing them to analytic specific knowledge and techniques,” Spears says.

“Finance is becoming increasingly analytics heavy, bringing with it policy issues around AI and the use
of data and machine learning. We are looking to train people who have deep knowledge in specific disciplines so that they know how to address societal problems that have a financial dimension to them.

“They need to be able to anticipate the broader social and policy implications of financial innovations such as regtech, robo-advice and wealth management.”

He points out that fintech is very much an evolving field, which is why the EFI has set up an advisory board whose members come from major corporates, the financial services sector and established fintech organisations. The board’s role is to ensure that the MSc curriculum reflects the real emerging needs of the sector.

Ksenia Grant points out that students in the course include a number who are economics graduates, as well as others with engineering and data sciences degrees.

“Some of them already have strong quantitative mathematical skills. This is a very demanding course, so students need to be able to handle courses on AI and applied machine learning as well as options such as behavioural finance and coding.”

She notes that a one-year fintech course is not going to give a student the equivalent of an MSc in artificial intelligence, but they need to be able to have a sound grasp of AI and the related policy and theory implications.

“Although this is undoubtedly a very demanding one-year MSc, it is already one of the most popular degrees on offer,” she comments.

The University of Strathclyde claims the distinction of being the first in the country to have offered a fintech MSc. Professor Eleanor Shaw, an associate principal at the university, says that the course organisers are very focused on attracting candidates from across the social spectrum.

“For any technology to reach its full potential, it needs to be explored by lots of diverse people. If you only have, for example, white middle-class males exploring a technology, that creates a narrow window. You want to open it up to a wide range of people. This includes attracting more women from a wide range of social and ethnic backgrounds.

“Having an open approach and being very inclusive while not compromising on the abilities required by the course, produces great outcomes. We are seeing huge demand from employers across the finance sector for our graduates. We are also encouraging those graduates who have an entrepreneurial flair to develop whatever ideas they have,” she says.

Professor Shaw points out that Strathclyde takes entrepreneurship very seriously. “We were one
of the first universities to launch an institution-wide strategy to inspire entrepreneurship, called Strathclyde Inspire. Every student, not just those on the fintech MSc, now has the chance to undertake some form of entrepreneurial learning experience,” she comments.

This holds true whether they are engineering students, science, social science or business school students. “We’re working hard to unlock our students’ entrepreneurial mindset and potential.

“This is not just about setting up businesses, although that is one manifestation of it. If you are going
to solve local problems you need to be more innovative, collaborative and original in your thinking and these are essential entrepreneurial skills,” she comments.

Professor Matthew Revie of the Strathclyde Business School leads the University’s fintech cluster. He says that as well as producing students who go on to launch their own, unique fintech businesses, many of the University’s fintech graduates find positions with mainstream traditional financial services companies.

“Some of the traditional financial institutions are also deeply involved in fintech and as more of them move to increase their use of fintech we are likely to see a surge in demand for graduates,” he says.

Of course, postgraduate fintech MSc degrees are not the only routes into this emerging field. Barclays is one of several mainstream companies offering apprenticeships in fintech. Barclays hires technology apprentices at age 16, promising that ‘you’ll be working alongside industry experts who are behind major leaps in fintech – brilliant minds who are always ready to support you and share their extensive knowledge’.

Although the Anecdotal evidence from fintech course organisers suggests that there are more than enough local and overseas candidates coming forward to claim places on the available courses, there remain question marks over what will happen if fintech continues to proliferate.

Taylor Spears points out that to work in fintech, people need exposure to a broad range of different forms of expertise. Quantitative skills are very important, but so is the ability to address ethical and policy issues.

“There is a whole range of new policy issues that regulators and financial market participants are being faced with, and this is a very new thing for fintech. It is very much an evolving field and that is what makes it so interesting,” he says.

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