Where UK based students are led to take Islamic finance masters' degrees as a route to an Islamic finance career, mis-selling may be taking place.
17 May 2016
I often hear from young Muslims in the UK who are interested in pursuing a career in Islamic finance, but without being clear about what that entails or the extent to which opportunities exist.
That led me to write the pages "Does Islamic finance need you?" and "Career prospects in Islamic finance in the UK."
I have been aware for some time of the proliferation of Islamic finance masters' degree courses at British universities. I used my May 2016 column in the magazine "Islamic Finance News" to ask if these courses were being mis-sold. While the magazine is only available to subscribers, my column is reproduced below.
How do we decide what to study at university? Most of us apply two main criteria.
One criterion is our intrinsic interest in the subject. It is hard to study a subject you find totally uninteresting; conversely if you find something utterly absorbing you are likely to study it with dedication and passion.
The other criterion is the instrumental question: “Will this subject lead to a rewarding and well paid career?”
The relative weight we give each criterion depends upon our personal circumstances. For the child of a billionaire, the second criterion may be completely irrelevant. For the child of indigent parents, it may be the main criterion.
As far as my own life is concerned, my parents were very poor. Despite that, perhaps because my parents never focused excessively on money themselves, I was driven primarily by my personal intellectual interests. At Cambridge in the 1960’s, if your interest was theoretical physics then Mathematics was the subject to study (rather than Natural Sciences), and that is what I read. During my time at university, my interests became even more abstract, and I concentrated on topics such as general topology, without thinking about what I was going to do for a living! Fortunately, I stumbled into accountancy, and then was attracted to taxation as a speciality that was both intellectually absorbing and well paid.
Against this background, I have become increasingly concerned by the large number of UK universities which are offering post-graduate master's courses in Islamic finance, and in particular whether the courses are being mis-sold.
Whether mis-selling is occurring depends of course on whether the information provided to the customers (students are paying customers since universities charge fees) is accurate, and on the reasons why the students are taking the courses concerned.
While I don’t have data regarding the geographical origins students taking these degrees, a reasonable proportion are likely to be foreign students, in many cases already working in Islamic finance, burnishing their academic credentials by obtaining a degree from a UK university. In world rankings, many UK universities rank relatively highly, and such a UK degree can enhance their promotion prospects and earning power in their home country.
In the case of UK origin students, the issues become more problematical.
Some proportion of these will be choosing to study Islamic finance because they find the subject intrinsically interesting, without seeing it as a pathway to an Islamic finance career. For such individuals, provided that the course is taught well, mis-selling cannot be an issue.
However, I have a real concern that many UK origin students are persuaded to take a master's degree in Islamic finance immediately after graduating, in the belief that the master's degree will lead them into an Islamic finance career. If students spend time looking at universities’ websites promoting such degrees, they are likely to be reinforced in that impression.
Unfortunately, the number of available positions in Islamic finance in the UK is very limited. Also UK Islamic financial institutions are too small to train people, and typically only hire experienced Islamic bankers. Unless the individual can find a trainee position overseas, entering the Islamic finance industry after the master's degree is likely to be impossible. My concern is that UK universities fail to point out such issues when promoting their Islamic finance masters' degrees to UK origin students.