GLOBAL: Business schools turn to Islamic finance

As unemployment levels remain high in the West, finance students are being encouraged to gain expertise in Islamic banking so that they will be able to work in the Gulf states and in the wider Islamic world.

Universities are also exposing students to other non-conventional and ethical finance models that include eco-finance and micro-finance.

While universities in the United Kingdom and France have offered Islamic finance programmes for some years because of their large Muslim populations, Spain is also increasingly looking into these programmes.

The Instituto de Empressa (IE) business school in Madrid has been offering Islamic finance programmes for five years and partnered with Saudi Arabia's King Abdul Aziz University (KAU) to launch the Saudi-Spanish Center for Islamic Economics and Finance (SCIEF) earlier this month.

Speaking at the event, Dr Ahmad Mohamed Ali Al Madani, head of the Islamic Development Bank, said the financial crisis had raised people's concerns beyond profit margins into where their money is invested. Al Madani was acting rector of KAU from 1967 to 1972 and was Saudi Arabia's deputy minister of education in the 1970s.

Business schools needed to respond accordingly and Spain was in a good position to do this considering the country's Arabic heritage, he said.

"You look around and find that Islamic institutions are in the hundreds. Amounts of the assets are in the billions. The system proved that it can support economic systems and respond to big demand from people in different parts of the world."

Professor Ignacio de la Torre, IE's academic director of the masters in finance programmes, said at the SCIEF launch that there is already US$1 trillion of Islamic money, and that it is growing at 20% with US$200 million of additional Islamic money coming in every year.

"When you travel to the Gulf, where 50% of banking has been Islamised, there are not enough people with skills and understanding of Islamic finance," he said.

He added that, from a career perspective, students would be wise to have knowledge of this area because those who work in conventional finance will sooner or later be faced with Islamic finance.

Due to the increasing focus on Islamic finance globally, the subject is now mandatory for masters in finance students, said Dr Celia de Anca, director of the Centre for Diversity at IE business school.

"We've been teaching it as an elective for five years and now it is mandatory because we realise the world of finance is changing so much that students and future financial managers should know more about what's going on," she said.

Students were showing an interest in sustainability in finance, ethics in finance and ecological finance and the school is looking into developing specialisations in alternative finance, De Anca said.

A number of UK universities have a strong tradition in Middle East studies and more recently in Islamic finance. At Durham University, Islamic finance programmes have been offered for more than 25 years, Durham Centre for Islamic Economics and Finance Director Dr Mehmet Asutay said at the Madrid launch.

The university has the largest PhD programme in Islamic finance as well as masters degrees in arts and in science in the field.

"In addition to Muslims coming from all over the world to the centre, we have English German, Italian and Spanish students," he said.

The field is not without its challenges. Professor Simon Archer of the Henley University of Reading's International Capital Market Association said the area was relatively new and "there is not a wealth of excellent textbooks".

Archer added: "Research literature is sparse and spread over a number of different journals and not tremendously accessible."

In addition, there were "opportunistic" universities in the UK that have responded to the need for programmes with varying levels of quality.