A South African university, The University of Cape Town, has unveiled a degree program for fintech (financial technology) which is expected to equip graduates with the skills to launch fintech companies. The school wants to help deepen the talent pool in the sector.
The University of Cape Town (UCT) is now the first university on the continent to offer a degree specifically designed to equip students with skills and knowledge in the ever growing financial services sector.
The new degree is a Master of Data Science with a specialisation in Financial Technology and will be offered for the first time in January 2018.The aim of the degree is to combat the main challenges in the sector such as the rise of modern technology and lack of skilled graduates who are able to take charge.
Though the school has promoted this program as the “first” in Africa, the university is not necessarily offering anything different from most schools which have added Data Sciences / Big Data in their computer science programs. This is not an undergraduate program to merit that “first”. A master’s degree student can specialize in any area of choice, to a large extent. Had this been an undergraduate program, that is where disagreement will come and the claim of the “first” in Africa will make sense. Any student in a decent Master’s degree computer science program in any African university should expect to cover data science. But of course, UCT is making this a specialized program.
The Master of Data Science with a specialisation in Financial Technology is a welcome program. Covenant University Nigeria has Big Data/Analytics in its MIS program. Yet, the biggest challenge for these programs is not really what the students are taught, in theory, but the ecosystem (i.e. the lab) where they will practice the things learnt. Cape Town is a center of financial excellence, so if the schools create partnerships with the industry, the students will benefit.
The use of machine learning (ML) and the broad AI (artificial intelligence) cannot be limited to fintech. In short, the best education could be getting the Master’s degree in Data Science, focusing on the models and algorithms and dealing with the applications later via a project. I know that some of the models we have used in Zenvus, my precision agtech company, came from models developed for biological robots. It turns out that biological robots and plants share many things in common. In other words, focusing on the fintech may even limit the student. For all the nice names we call ML, it is really statistical modeling and computation at scale.
A fintech program like this should be designed with many labs. I will recommend that they ensure students get value through exposure to real market data. Instead of just teaching blockchain and bitcoin, they have labs where students can experience them. With such labs, many African fintech founders and entrepreneurs could be seeded with great insights on what these technologies offer.
I do hope one university in Nigeria will mimic the South African university and offer something for our entrepreneurs and students. But before they do so, they must have the labs where models can be simulated. It may not come easily because National Universities Commission (NUC) may not allow such. The South African university is seeing demand for the program, and one will expect the same in Nigeria, especially in Lagos schools.
“We see extraordinary demand for the degree already,” continues Georg, “also because Cape Town-based students can do the degree part-time. This is quite important to us since we want working finance professionals to be able to complete the degree and acquire the skills to thrive in a changing industry. For students who want to do the degree full time, we do offer full scholarships to ensure that nobody will be excluded financially.”
Georg concludes “Fintech offers a unique opportunity to radically transform the industry. Young startups are already challenging the incumbents and our students will be on the forefront of this technological revolution in South Africa. Our focus on entrepreneurship means that we will change the students’ mindset so that they not only want to go out and ‘get’ a job, but also to go out and create a job – or a hundred.”
This could be a good program and South Africa wants to be on top of it. If they deepen the entrepreneurship component of this degree, South Africa’s role as Africa’s heart of finance will remain unchallenged. Yet, it is very debatable that you can use a Master’s degree program framework to create great fintech entrepreneurs. I still believe that the core pillars, in unlocking creativity, take place at undergraduate education. But one thing is clear: if the students improve their data science capabilities, they will have the world open to them, not just in finance but in many other areas. Data, they say, is one of the pillars of the 21st century commerce. Knowing how to manipulate it is a skill of our time.