Amid the sustained reproach directed at the financial sector for its part in the economic crisis, the role of training and education has also come into focus.
While finance graduates on the whole believe that their business schools have paid enough attention to social responsibility, their view of the industry is much more critical, according to a recent Financial Times survey.
A poll of masters in finance alumni from the graduating classes of 2008 and 2009 was conducted at the same time as the Masters in Finance Rankings 2012.
Some 82 per cent of respondents are employed in the financial sector. These alumni have less negative views about the industry's role in society than those working in other fields, and about the extent to which social responsibility was incorporated in their study program.
Whereas 70 per cent of alumni working in finance considered that their school placed enough emphasis on ethics, only 46 per cent of those in other sectors shared this view.
Although 60 per cent of survey respondents told the FT that the financial sector's role in society was discussed as part of their formal teaching, 25 per cent reported that very little or no emphasis was placed on this subject.
Paul Palmer, associate dean for ethics, sustainability and engagement at Cass Business School in London, says that schools have been forced to respond since these alumni graduated at the onset of the crisis.
"Not only has the finger of doubt been pointed at business schools," Prof. Palmer says, "they have had to respond to market forces demanding greater focus on ethics."
Among these forces, Prof. Palmer notes the introduction of requirements from professional bodies, such as Britain's Chartered Institute for Securities and Investment, that industry employees should have completed and passed ethical components in their training.
John Thanassoulis, director of the University of Oxford's Masters in Financial Economics, taught jointly by the Said Business School and the university's economics department, says: "It's not about telling finance students not to take risks, but to increase their awareness of the sector's social responsibilities."
Mr. Thanassoulis cites the introduction at Oxford of an option – Financial Crises: Causes and Remedies – taken by about 50 per cent of students on the degree – as an example of the refocusing of curriculums.
While many schools have taken steps toward addressing perceived shortcomings in their focus on ethics, the finance industry itself has been unable to shed its reputation for social disengagement. When asked if they believe the sector takes its social responsibilities seriously enough, 67 per cent of alumni working in finance answered negatively. This figure was 86 per cent among those employed in the broader economy.
More than one-third of alumni said increased loans to SMEs and lower executive pay and bonuses would help the sector demonstrate that it was changing. The most popular suggestion to make the industry seem more socially responsible – advocated by 43 per cent of respondents – was increased community engagement. This comes in spite of the financial sector's large-scale, and often high-profile, philanthropic activities.
Having graduated at the height of the crisis, the vast majority (89 per cent) of alumni surveyed acknowledged the downturn had forced them to review their career expectations.
More than half (54 per cent) reviewed their outlook "significantly." Against the economic backdrop of their graduation, pre-degree expectations were amended principally with respect to choice of employer, which 62 per cent of the surveyed group report having revised. A majority (53 per cent) also report lowering their salary expectations.
Prof. Palmer is not alone in his assertion that today's graduate finance students have a much greater awareness of the competition and circumstances that they will face on completing their masters degrees.
Mr. Thanassoulis says: "While our students still see a career in finance as a route to wealth and prestige, the current crop are less excitable about the profession. Three years ago, the students were much more carnivorous!"