Professor Jason Sturgess, Head of School, discusses the development of the school under his leadership and how he envisions its future.
You have been at Queen Mary for some time now, and as Head of School since September 2020. How are you finding it? Can you share a little about how you got here?
The school of Economics and Finance (SEF) is immensely rich in terms of research, teaching, and students. Taking on the headship is an honour. It is my role to be a guardian to ensure that the School continues its strong trajectory and is left in a better position than when I took it on. I am fortunate in that there are lots of exciting things going on, but there’s still so much to do! Part of my responsibility is to lead staff and students to help them achieve their full potential.
I joined Queen Mary in 2017. Before that I studied for my PhD at London Business School and was a faculty member at Georgetown University McDonough School of Business and DePaul University Driehaus College of Business and Kellstadt Graduate School of Business. These three schools are business schools, which gives me a different perspective, especially within the context of what we can do for students. I was a faculty member at two Schools in the US, where the education market is different. Both Schools focused very much on student proficiencies such as soft skills and social capital that can enhance social mobility. Queen Mary and in particular the Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences has a great opportunity to support students to enhance these key skills.
I was initially drawn to Queen Mary by its prestige and potential to be a research powerhouse, particularly in economics and finance because of our world-class researchers, its unique student base, and the possibility of developing new initiatives, especially in areas such as citizenship and inclusion.
Being a financial economist, I look at financial markets and think about how capital is allocated, not only money but also human capital, people, or ideas, to some degree. Ultimately, I believe financial markets can be a tool for positive economic and social change; if used correctly, efficient financial markets that allocate assets and money effectively can enhance social welfare. Although this may seem idealistic, particularly since the great recession, it remains a sensible concept. Different countries have developed their financial markets in varied ways, leading to diverse outcomes. I examine these differences to understand why they exist as well as the impact they might have on the welfare of society, firms, and households. A good example is whether differences in property laws affect the ability of entrepreneurs to develop and finance their own ideas and start their own companies, which can create value and jobs for society.
I also think about how governments or markets can design mechanisms that overcome information frictions which impede efficient markets. For example, if one wants to design a financial market where people can borrow money, a lender needs to know whether someone qualifies and whether they're likely to repay. Credit market Information allows a lender to determine the credit quality of the person or firm and allocate credit to the better ideas or projects.
One of the more recent projects I’ve been working on focuses on the design of credit guarantee programmes. This is an interesting endeavour because many governments instituted this kind of programme following the Covid-19 pandemic. The issue is understanding whether the bright side of guarantee programmes - ensuring that good firms get access to credit, which can increase employment – dominates the dark side of guarantee programmes – that the guarantee creates a moral hazard problem that can result in bad lending decisions and possibly fraud. Another project that excites me is looking at gender bias in financial careers. Traditionally, jobs in finance have been dominated by male employees, whether accountants, lawyers, investment bankers, and so on. Trying to understand why this is, and how to rectify it, is so important because, just as capital or money being constrained in financial markets leads to inefficiencies, inequalities in the labour market creates inefficiencies in human capital outcomes which can impede social welfare.
It is a privilege to hold the reins for a few years. I want to make a difference, even if it's a small but meaningful change, that moves the School in the right direction. The ambition of the school is to have a positive impact on the big questions facing economies and societies today. A university has an obligation to society, and as an economics and finance group we have a particular responsibility to use economics to enhance society. These are very important economic problems that our faculty, alumni, and students are currently solving. It's as important today as it's ever been with the challenges of the pandemic.
Research is critical – the School is on a strong trajectory here. We have a large school with a wide range of research interests, so we can have an impact across several areas. I also want us to think about where we have centres of expertise within the school and develop them. We’re broad right now, which is great, but through these centres of expertise, we can be truly world class.
Research engagement is also crucial. Our research should be connected to the real world, and I think this can happen very easily on a global scale. However, our research can also have an impact locally. I'm thinking of Tower Hamlets and how we collaborate and engage with the local community.
One of the ways we have impact is through our ability to share knowledge, skills, and expertise with students, who become our alumni and the leaders of tomorrow. Teaching must be relevant to our students when they graduate and venture into the world. We can improve and enhance our teaching by developing new programmes and redesigning some of our existing programmes. The great thing about economics and finance is that the topics are rarely static. We study topics that change quickly, so we must continue to develop our approaches, our skills, and the student experience.
Ultimately, it all comes down to two things - people, and culture. Making sure we have a culture where everyone feels inspired to do their best, to give back and believe in Queen Mary. A culture where people are included and feel engaged and involved to contribute. In the same way as research and teaching are symbiotic, people and culture work together. Our culture is directly related to our ability to attract, retain, and support the right people.
In essence, I want to us to build a culture where the school becomes greater than the sum of its parts. This isn’t easy! It is related to a classic economics-style argument in the type of research I do – why do components come together, and how do they create value? There is an opportunity at Queen Mary because we have an amazing base of research - and students that are outstanding, but also distinct from their Russell Group counterparts - what an opportunity! By bringing a distinct perspective, they offer a diverse approach to the world and traditional decision-making. I want to see Queen Mary alumni flying the Queen Mary flag in a very different way than those of other institutions because I think we are distinct, and should be proud of that.
All Russell Group universities provide world-class teaching and research. On paper, they all appear similar, but Queen Mary has many strengths. I believe we must be more ambitious to showcase these strengths and explore opportunities afforded by our uniqueness. Upon getting a real sense of the university, you’ll realise for yourself that we have some attributes that no other institution offers.
Queen Mary distinguishes itself in a combination of its core values, as well as its community. We have extraordinary student demographics – more than 90% of our home students are from state schools, 57% are the first generation in their family to go to university, 69% are BAME, and a huge number of our students are from the local area, so we have a really strong connection with East London.
East London is a wonderful place, and the university is truly global, with more than 160 different nationalities represented. There’s also an international feel to the academic staff. We recruit world-class academics globally, which means that students are taught by internationally renowned academics.
One word that sums up Queen Mary is opportunity. It doesn’t just refer to the opportunities we offer our students, but also the university’s resolution to provide outstanding experiences for students throughout their lives as the next generation of leaders who are more representative of society than the current leaders.
The first thing is academic quality. It is also unique because Queen Mary offers a campus experience in London. Students get the collegiate environment, infrastructure, and resources of a campus, but in the middle of what is probably the best city in the world! You may not agree with that, but if you're really interested in economics and finance, then London is clearly the biggest hub in the world. It's a unique combination to have the experience of London while being safe and involved in a campus community.
Community is important to a university because it shapes the experiences students have, not the academics. Queen Mary’s community attracts students because individuals participate, understand the issues they are passionate about, and take the initiative. And because we live in a diverse community, the causes we care about are wide-ranging - so students have a chance to identify with some, and thus take part in the society-changing process.
Our courses constantly evolve at the module and programme level because economics and finance are fast-moving disciplines in the real world, so it makes sense there would be a feedback mechanism between academia and the real world. The MSc in Finance and Machine Learning is both exciting and innovative because it focuses on an extremely hot field. The landscape of finance looks quite different today from five or ten years ago, and the use of machine learning in financial markets is now common. Anyone with a background in economics, finance, mathematics or computer science, who wishes to learn about how financial markets work, the application of big data and machine learning, and ultimately step into a financial role, would find this course hugely attractive. My belief is that this offering will be of great importance and will fill an important gap. I believe we’re one of the very few institutions able to deliver this programme effectively.
The MSc in Mental Health Economics is perhaps even more ground-breaking since it draws attention to the way mental health interacts with economics. Over the past year, these connections have been increasingly highlighted because it’s now clear that there’s a strong link and moreover it’s complex. We can think about it in terms of individual decisions when struggling with mental health problems, which is important, but also broader economic factors that could lead to mental health problems. This is something we do need to think more about as economists, mental health experts, and even governments. The course is taught by academics from both the Medical School and the School of Economics and Finance, so students will get to be at the cutting edge of both fields.
The Economics Masters Apprenticeship programme (EMAP) is equally cutting edge but in a different way. It is developed in partnership with the Government Economics Service (GES), and is aimed at civil service economists within the UK government. This programme fits well with the guiding principles and values of the university and school. It will give us the chance to produce and train the next generation of government economists.
This applies not only to our applicants, but also students and graduates applying for internships or graduate jobs, and alumni developing their careers. The days of it being all about academic grades are gone. You need to demonstrate more than your A-levels or degree to be considered, including extracurricular interests and achievements. Think about community, inclusion, sports, and how you've pushed yourself and others to do better. It's important to illustrate this and articulate the impact you had.
Queen Mary is a place where people, culture, and how we contribute to society come together. Employers want to see that you are passionate about and able to make a difference, that you are going to be proud to be an employee, and that you will be able to proactively contribute.
We cannot underestimate the effect of the lockdown on students. Although we initially thought it would be a short-term problem, the effects are likely to be long-term. We have worked hard to offer everything online so that our students can continue to benefit from the Queen Mary experience. We have also delivered face to face learning where possible and will continue to ramp this up when we can, but of course we’re hugely constrained by things like social distancing and facilities.
The pandemic has given us a chance to innovate in the way we deliver an experience to our students. Today, instead of two-hour lectures, we have bite-sized chunks to learn with, interactive quizzes, polls, targeted learning, things that are really cutting edge whether you are online or in person. Despite a lot of innovation, I believe the cost to students is not being able to develop broader skills or demonstrate that they are well-rounded because a lot of these channels are less easy to transfer online. Moreover, many of our students come from homes where they are the first in their family to be a student, which means they probably don't have the same support system. Some students are living at home and fighting for bandwidth or tech time with siblings and parents. Our staff is good at assessing students’ concerns and, more importantly, strive to treat every student individually so that everyone has an opportunity to succeed.
It was enough of a hobby becoming Head of School! Like most people, I have found it challenging. On the other hand, I have learned to be grateful, be positive, and appreciate things. I have a young family which has kept me very busy, especially through home schooling. At the start of lockdown, we homed a puppy, Arlo, who ensures there is never a dull moment at home.
This interview was conducted by Alumni Engagement Coordinator, Hannah. If you would like to get in touch with Professor Jason Sturgess or engage him in your work, please contact Hannah Dormor.