IT doctors needed to heal financial sector

London's first centre for financial computing could be just what the UK's financial services industry needs after the turmoil of the past year. The...

London's first centre for financial computing could be just what the UK's financial services industry needs after the turmoil of the past year.

The UK Doctoral Training Centre in Financial Computing, based at University College London (UCL), aims to produce 10 PhDs a year with combined skills in science, engineering and finance.

It will train researchers to develop and use analytical tools for tasks such as risk modelling, algorithmic trading and managing compliance.

Banks use high-powered systems that rely on mathematical models to predict risks associated with investments. These systems help banks to protect their financial positions by making safer investments alongside riskier ones.

But these systems did not stop banks taking innapropriate risks that led to the crisis in the finance sector.

Since September, the financial services industry has gone into free-fall as a result of risky business practices. Banks have gone out of business, been nationalised or bailed out by government. Thousands of staff at firms across the world have lost their jobs and thousands more are expected to.

Scientific background

Financial services companies need people with a strong scientific background more than ever, says Philip Treleaven, professor of computing at UCL.

"Because of the credit crunch, all of a sudden banks need the very best PhDs for very specialist jobs such as analytics and model building."

Treleaven says banks have been "a bit lax on modeling risk" but following the credit crunch have realised they need to change. "In the past they might have recruited people with broad skills, but now they want people who have gone through a rigorous scientific education."

More government regulations are expected to be imposed on finacial services firms following the turmoil.

The use of complex technology contributed to the problems that have hit the finance sector, says Chris Skinner, CEO at financial services think-tank Balatro. "You need mathematicians with technology skills to undo these instruments and make them safe."

Investment banks

Michael Bennett, director of ReThink Recruitment, says many of the IT skills in investment banks are so highly specialised that staff cannot be cut and the remaining personnel expected to do the work.

He says investment banks are being forced to recruit IT staff to address flaws in their systems exposed by the financial crisis. "Regulatory reforms will impose much more stringent risk management requirements on the banking system."

Treleaven says it is not just about reducing risk but also increasing competitiveness. The banks are becoming very scientific and already have the most advanced networks and computing technology in the world, he says.

"More research is needed to improve this further. Because of the financial crisis, the banks want to do more analytics and also want to speed up their networks and make them more reliable," adds Treleaven.

The university has the support of the 20 biggest financial firms. Each has agreed to take on a PhD student. And according to Treleaven there is no shortage of potential students despite the turmoil in the industry. "We did a workshop for PhDs interested in a course in financial services and we thought we would get abut 25 people but actually, we got 300," he says.

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