Nurturing a new generation of green finance talents
In this series, NUS News explores how NUS is accelerating sustainability research and education in response to climate change challenges, and harnessing the knowledge and creativity of our people to pave the way to a greener future for all.
Asia’s first Master of Science in Sustainable and Green Finance programme celebrated its inaugural cohort of graduates in July this year. Professor Sumit Agarwal and Associate Professor Zhang Weina from the Sustainable and Green Finance Institute (SGFIN) reflect on their learning journeys, the importance of multidisciplinary and experiential learning in sustainable finance education, and the role of industry-academia collaborations in developing tomorrow's talent pool.
It has been about a year since Asia’s first Master of Science degree in Sustainable and Green Finance (MSGF) was launched by NUS Business School in collaboration with the Sustainable and Green Finance Institute (SGFIN). For the first cohort, as well as the main stakeholders of the programme, it has been an exciting learning journey.
Developing the new curriculum for our brand-new master's programme has not been an easy endeavour. Many of our colleagues have worked relentlessly to update their teaching materials given the fast-paced developments in government policies, regulations and industry movements. The construction of core and elective courses has been carefully planned to enable students from diverse backgrounds to have sufficient knowledge in finance as well as the flexibility of specialising in different aspects of sustainability. In addition, we are continuing to work with different colleagues to develop new electives based on the industry developments over time.
Given the multidisciplinary nature of the MSGF programme, SGFIN has worked closely with industry partners and academics within NUS to create relevant learning opportunities for the students beyond the usual classroom setting on a weekly basis. Our industry speakers came from various financial institutions such as banks, asset management firms, consulting companies, and corporations. The industry experts did not just bring relevant knowledge and insights to the students, but also generously supported the students with experiential learning experiences through deeper engagements such as judging the sustainable finance case competition, supervising capstone projects and providing internships.
In the case competition held from January to April 2023, more than 150 NUS students participated in solving a real challenge faced by local small and medium-sized enterprise (SMEs) to adopt solar business models to reduce their own carbon footprints. Different types of business models were available for SMEs with or without physical spaces to participate in their own decarbonisation journey through energy transition in a flexible way. As financial viability and financing options were the critical barriers to large-scale adoption, the participating students worked hard to provide practical recommendations for the local SMEs. Some students event went to the extent of visiting and interviewing the local entrepreneurs to gather feedback. Their involvement has continued even after the competition and some remain actively engaged in the potential implementation of the proposed solutions and the search for interested parties with which to collaborate.
Leveraging industry-academia collaborations for enriching learning experiences
Throughout the year, many academics from different parts of NUS have shared their latest research in the field of sustainability with the aim of promoting multidisciplinary learning for MSGF students. They include Associate Professor Roman Carrasco from the Department of Biological Sciences and the Centre for Nature-based Climate Solutions; Dr Su Bin from the Energy Studies Institute; Professor Liu Bin from the Centre for Hydrogen Innovations; Assistant Professor Filip Biljecki from the Urban Analytics Lab and Associate Professor Pang Sze Dai from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Moreover, the students have also learnt to connect some of the latest technological advancements and cutting-edge research findings with sustainable financial analysis and proactively explored ways financial services and products can be used to help scale up and promote relevant sustainable solutions.
Undoubtedly, experiential learning is a very important part of nurturing the new generation of sustainable finance experts. Many theories and frameworks may sound good in the classroom setting. But when the rubber hits the road, realistic challenges and issues may arise from various angles. Hence, critical thinking is one of the key skillsets that can be further developed through the capstone projects.
The objective of the programme’s capstone project is to solve a real-world problem faced by an organisation. Together with representatives from the organisation, students worked in groups under the guidance of an academic supervisor from NUS to formulate a problem statement and propose a workable plan with clear deliverables geared to the organisation’s needs. The entire capstone project lasted seven months and ended with a showcase event known as the Gallery Walk to display their work to the stakeholders and the public. It is worth mentioning that our academic supervisors came from many parts of NUS, including the Department of Finance, Department of Chemistry, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, and Department of Biological Science.
Solving real-world problems: From exploring the business potential of biomass to understanding the young’s green preferences
One group of students made a great effort to understand the younger generation’s preferences concerning sustainable consumer items and related green finance products through carefully designed survey questions which gathered hundreds of responses. The key result worth highlighting is that many have expressed an interest in paying for impact-related financial products, reflecting the younger generation’s greater willingness to sacrifice financial returns in their investment portfolios. Such strong interests in giving back to society and planet is very encouraging to see and is also the most desirable form of sustainable finance: maximising the social and environmental value and accepting a reasonable amount of financial returns. This type of sustainable finance is very different from traditional finance which primarily focuses on maximising financial profits without consideration for the social and environmental externalities that can be negative.
Another group of students took on the very challenging task of investigating the commercialisation of biomass, which refers to organic materials from plants and animals that can be used as a renewable energy source. In Asia, there is a rich source of biomass that can potentially be a viable source of cleaner energy. Detailed research was conducted by the students and four generations of biomass were evaluated in terms of costs and benefits. Based on the literature, the students discovered that the most financially viable biofuel source came from the second generation of biomass. Through the use of lifecycle assessment tools, it was found that the carbon footprint can be significantly reduced as the technology for large-scale production is already available to compensate for the large capex investment at the initial stage. With an in-depth analysis combining financial analysis as well as an understanding of the production process of biofuel, the market demand, and the regulations across different geographical locations, the students were able to provide a very comprehensive and holistic analysis of the important social, environmental and economic evaluation of the potential of biofuel.
Their findings have attracted a lot of interest from the industry partners and the student group continues to work on refining their findings based on the feedback from the industry after the Gallery Walk. Reflecting on their experience, the group noted “the importance of communication”, and the “need to contextualise, synergise, and make sure we understand the needs of every stakeholder,” said group member Jefferson who worked on the project together with Zhao Jianxin, Lucas Tan and Priyanka Sancheti. In this way, they can leverage each other’s strengths and weaknesses to meet the needs of all stakeholders and contribute to making improvements that will benefit the planet.
SGFIN was set up to develop cutting-edge research and promote multidisciplinary educational programmes in the field of sustainable finance. One year since the launch of MSGF, we have taken stock of the lessons learnt. A key observation is that there must be an intentional effort to promote multidisciplinary training which also has to be backed up by rigorous research, in-depth industry knowledge, collaborations, and opportunities for students to step into real-world issues and challenges.
Secondly, we also find that the financial industry is still evolving in its investment and financing strategies given the fast-paced regulatory framework shifts and new policies. Hence, our students need to adapt to the changing environment fast and exercise critical thinking ability in many instances. These skillsets need to be deliberately developed through the curriculum and experiential learning throughout the entire master's programme.
We are excited about the various learning opportunities explored by our students, and look forward to the continuation of the hard work by our first cohort in their respective new working environments. Some of our graduates have already secured their new jobs in sustainable investment and consulting companies working on sustainability-related projects. Moreover, our second cohort has also embarked on their learning journey following discussions with the senior students during their presentations of the capstone projects at the Gallery Walk held in August 2023. Together with our industry partners, our colleagues from various parts of NUS will continue to be the key contributing forces for quality research and education to nurture the new generation of talents.
About the authors
Sumit Agarwal is the Low Tuck Kwong Distinguished Professor of Finance, Economics, and Real Estate at National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School and Managing Director of the Sustainable and Green Finance Institute (SGFIN) at NUS.
Zhang Weina is Associate Professor of Finance at NUS Business School, Deputy Director of SGFIN and Academic Director of the NUS MSc in Sustainable and Green Finance programme.