Universities offer expanded courses in financial services

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The ICMA Centre, a financial services-focused business school attached to the UK's University of Reading, received a 5m (€7.4m) grant to finance the expansion of its teaching facilities this month.

The endowment was a gift from the centre's benefactor and namesake, the International Capital Markets Association. But Reading is not the only university to run specialist finance courses with outside help. In 2002, Cass Business School, part of the City University, London received a substantial donation from the Sir John Cass Foundation. Exeter University received a multi-million pound sum from an anonymous donor to finance its Centre for Finance and Investment, Xfi, in 2001.

Does the industry need these finance-focused educational institutions? Although universities offer an array of banking-related undergraduate and postgraduate courses, few investment banks actively recruit at them. The head of graduate recruitment at one US bank had not heard of the ICMA Centre.

Ian Tonks, director of the Xfi Centre, said banks usually restricted recruitment presentations to a group of three or four universities, and admitted that Exeter was not one of them.

The head of graduate recruitment at a European bank in London said: "The best places to do a masters course in financial services are the London School of Economics, Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial, Warwick and the French grandes écoles."

Other British universities, such as Bangor, Lancaster, Nottingham and Southampton, offer finance-focused MScs purporting to prepare graduates for a glittering career in financial markets. The University of Bangor's website claims it is "one of the major European university centres for financial studies".

Vivienne Bradley, head of European graduate recruitment at Merrill Lynch, said the bank would welcome applicants from Bangor but it was not on the bank's target list for the milk round.

Postgraduate finance courses at second and third-tier universities often attract a high proportion of international students. At Exeter, 60% to 70% of postgraduate students at the finance centre are from Asia. At the ICMA Centre, 25% of students are from south Asia, with many of the remainder from South Africa, Nigeria, Mauritius and Malaysia.

Tim Hughes, deputy director of the ICMA Centre, said the proportion of international students attending the course had risen: when the centre opened in 1991, 40% of postgraduate students were from the UK.

He admitted the high proportion of international students could act as a deterrent for banks that might otherwise visit the centre to make recruitment presentations. "We have a small pool of 200 or so students and half of them are from overseas."

Several years ago, Cass Business School limited the number of south-east Asian students on its MBA course. James Haberman, deputy dean, said the move was taken to avoid domination by a single cultural group.

He said: "Students who come on an MBA course are expecting a diverse group of colleagues in terms of previous experience and countries of origin. It makes for a higher-quality learning experience when you are working in teams."

However, Cass had not restricted the number of south-east Asians on its finance MSc courses, said Haberman. People studying for such a qualification were involved in less-intensive group work and the course drew less heavily on previous experience, he said.

Schools offering specialist MScs denied doing little to improve students' job prospects. Hughes said ABN Amro and WestLB regularly presented on the ICMA campus.

Haberman said Cass had to extend its recent banking recruitment fair because of unprecedented demand from organisations wanting to attend. He said: "We had Royal Bank of Scotland, Credit Suisse First Boston, HBOS and ABN Amro. Our undergraduates and masters students go in droves to investment banks; we have more than 50 alumni at Citigroup and HSBC."

Oivind Tjelta, a senior analyst at Bank of New York who received an MSc in finance at Lancaster University, said when he graduated in 2001 no big banks visited to recruit final-year students. Despite this, he said the course offered several advantages over similar ones at institutions in London.

"It's a small school and you have good contact with lecturers who take a real interest in you and want to see you flourish. If I were to make the same decision today, I would choose Lancaster again," he said.

In the world of financial services, publicly extolling the virtues of an alma mater is a good idea.

Heather McGregor, a graduate of London Business School and former investment analyst at ABN Amro turned headhunter and lecturer at Cass, said the perceived virtues of educational establishments owed much to alumni support.

She said: "The best way of ensuring your business school or university becomes a top-tier school is to support it when you leave. If you don't do that, you only have yourself to blame if in 20 years' time no one knows where it is."

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