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Rushabh Nagori: Decision to replace financial actuarial math program’s lecturers will hurt students

The financial actuarial mathematics program offered an industry-focused, pre-professional education to students. The math department’s changes to the program tarnish those qualities. (Daily Bruin file photo)

By Rushabh Nagori

May 30, 2018 10:25 p.m.

Imagine you pay thousands of dollars to attend one of the world’s best public universities. You come in with the reasonable expectation that the university will do everything in its power to make you employable once you graduate – including hiring faculty who understand the industry you’re about to enter and can prepare you for the professional world.

If you are a student studying finance, though, UCLA might be a risky investment.

UCLA’s math department recently announced it will not retain any current lecturers in the financial actuarial mathematics program to improve the curriculum and reflect the growing role of data science in the field. The department will replace these lecturers with professors who are tenured or on track to be tenured.

Actuaries compile and analyze statistics to calculate insurance risks and premiums. All current lecturers in this program are distinguished professionals who work as actuaries, while none of the ladder faculty are actuarial-certified.

This move is bound to make it much more difficult for students pursuing actuarial careers to get jobs and internships. The current lecturers bring their variety of experiences from the industry into the classroom, which helps students understand the responsibilities of a professional actuary. Replacing these professionals will sever contact with people who work in the industry.

Students in the FAM program attest to lecturers’ help outside of class in preparing for the job market.

“I think they definitely helped bring a sense of real-world applications of concepts, especially with their projects,” said Sanjay Pitchai, a fourth-year FAM student.

These projects were particularly helpful to students because they challenged them to apply in-class concepts.

“The projects were quite sandboxlike, in the sense that you were given topics that were very wide and open to interpretation, which allowed students to think and act as professionals in the real world would,” Pitchai said.

Taking away this valuable real-world exposure and replacing it with more theoretical knowledge does little to help students. What matters most when applying for jobs is your previous experience in the field. Since current lecturers work at renowned firms or for the government, they are poised to help students obtain jobs by putting in a good word for them and providing them with networking tips.

Pitchai said he is still in contact with a few of the professors who have taught him in the past, but added younger students will miss out altogether on the invaluable opportunity to interact with them.

Saumya Ananthanarayan, a second-year FAM student, has not yet taken any upper division FAM classes. She said she is anxious about how different her experience will be compared to those of previous students.

“These lecturers had decades of experience working as actuaries and could help students understand this field well beyond the scope of typical professors,” she said.

Sadly, the math department’s decision comes at a time when students in other finance-oriented departments – economics, accounting or statistics – already lack professional help. Many students who want to pursue careers in finance find a discernible knowledge gap between class materials and what they are expected to know in job and internship interviews. On-campus clubs are forced to fill in the gaps for students. Ideally, such clubs should work hand in hand with departments, but are instead forced to take on the combined role of club, class and networking coach.

Shatakshi Mohan, a second-year statistics major, is the president of one such club called Bruin Investment and Trading, which teaches its members about financial analysis. Mohan feels that concepts taught in classes are not enough to make students employable.

“The pace of UCLA’s academics is far too slow compared to that of the investment banking industry,” Mohan said. “There are a lot of things that I’ve had to teach myself or learn with the guidance of external resources that I would not have stumbled upon if I stuck to concepts taught in class.”

The FAM program was looked to as a model for an effective pre-professional finance program. It was the only industry-specific finance course at UCLA taught by members of the private sector or government – a stark contrast to the generalized and largely theoretical economics and statistics courses that other students interested in finance take. At a time when the other departments should have been learning from the FAM program, the FAM program is instead moving in the opposite direction.

UCLA certainly provides career readiness programs for students interested in finance. A case in point is the Sharpe Fellows Internship Program, which allows students to network with investment bankers.

However, most investment banks now recruit for junior year internships in the spring of sophomore year, and the Sharpe Fellows Internship Program starts in the fall of students’ junior year. Getting a good junior year internship often results in a job offer from the same firm, and since the program starts after the recruiting cycle for most investment banks, it is not very useful to students.

Making students employable involves more than just teaching them course material. It means adjusting programs based on changing industry needs and allowing more experienced professors to tinker with class curricula based on their understanding of the professional landscape.

The FAM program offered that sort of pre-professional education. After the math department’s decision, though, it’ll become just another theoretical program that churns out thousands of underprepared finance graduates.

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Rushabh Nagori | Opinion columnist
Nagori is an Opinion columnist.
Nagori is an Opinion columnist.
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