With huge spending power and thousands of employees, what could one of the UK’s largest banks possibly learn from students?
The answer, in a world that is being rapidly reshaped by technology, could be: quite a lot.
At least, this is what Santander is hoping for as it runs a competition asking students and recent graduates to help it to crack some of the financial sector’s biggest digital challenges.
Baroness Vadera, the bank’s UK chairman, told Times Higher Education that the competition amounted to recognition that, when it came to technology, young people were often “better at it” than their older peers.
“I think younger people are…of a generation [for whom] this is all very instinctive,” Lady Vadera said. “If you’re inside a big organisation, you are all talking to each other, then you start to think in the same way, so I think it’s fantastic to have external input.”
The Big Ideas competition asks students to tackle challenges including semantic search, allowing bank staff to access customer information more quickly; digital authentication, ensuring online transactions are secure; and the incorporation of virtual reality into financial services.
Following the launch of the competition last year, 13 entries have been shortlisted. Prizes of up to £5,000 are on offer for the best ideas, with Santander also looking to help entrants to develop their proposals into solutions that could be commercialised.
The competition reflects how the types of skills being looked for by banks in potential employees have changed; far from just needing bankers, technological experts are needed too.
But it also reflects the sorts of experience that Lady Vadera believes to be important for the wider workforce, with a shortage of graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics being a particular issue.
“We have a productivity problem in this country: we are less productive than France and we have the worst skills gap in Europe, so we are not going to solve this unless we are able to create a better skilled workforce,” the peer said. “A lot of the answer to that comes from education and some of it comes from how employers motivate their employees because…people already in work have to be constantly upskilling and learning to keep pace with change.
“[But] I think it’s really critical that employers focus on working with universities and other higher education organisations to get employable skills into the workforce.”
The bank already works closely with scores of UK higher education institutions through its Santander Universities initiative, offering scholarships, grants and support, stretching as far as advice on curriculum design, if requested.
Entrepreneurship is another attribute that Lady Vadera is keen to see encouraged in students, and she said that the competition would tap into what she described as the “Dragons’ Den generation” who were enthusiastic to start their own companies after witnessing the success of technology entrepreneurs such as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.
Lady Vadera, herself a former investment banker and a minister in the last Labour government, said it was good that the most talented graduates did not go only into the financial sector.
“I think there’s a healthy move now to going back to wanting to set up businesses and wanting to be in different sectors,” she said. “I think it’s a really good thing for the economy because there is a sense that you’re going to be building something; you’re going to be greening the economy [and] dealing with the infrastructure problem.
“There is a different call now which will encourage more people to take an interest in sciences, technology, engineering and maths.”
Lady Vadera also acknowledged that a continuing issue was fair access to top careers, be it in banking or in the technology sector. Widening access to work experience and nurturing the talent of applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds would be particularly useful, she said.
“[Industries] are not going to succeed if [we] don’t tap into the potential of everybody,” she said. “Just tapping into the potential of a segment of the population isn’t going to make up the productivity gap.”
£5,000 – on offer for the best proposals entered in Santander’s Big Ideas competition
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