GaWC Research Bulletin 329

GaWC logo
  Gateways into GaWC

This Research Bulletin has been published in Environment and Planning A, 43 (1), (2011), 10-27.


Please refer to the published version when quoting the paper.


Commoditising Learning: Cultural Economy and the Growth of For-profit Educational Service Firms

S. Hall* and L. Appleyard*


The ways in which education is increasingly framed as a service industry, capable of promoting economic growth within ‘knowledge based economies' has attracted growing interest in geography and the broader social sciences. However, whilst research has explored the changing nature of higher education and compulsory state schooling, the growing significance of comparatively new educational services sold by for-profit educational service firms have rarely been placed centre stage. In response, in this paper we explore how for-profit education firms in the financial business education sector with offices in London have successfully expanded their operations. We combine work on the internationalisation of service firms with cultural economy approaches to market making in order to understand how these educational services firms have developed by ‘stabilising' new educational services and products that compete with, and seek to ‘destabilise', more established forms of business education, particularly MBA degrees. In so doing, the paper extends research in economic geography concerning the growth of business service firms by revealing how firms operating in relatively ‘young' service sectors, such as education, create new markets for their products. Moreover, by focusing on a comparatively well-developed for-profit educational sector, the research also points to the possible future development of educational landscapes beyond the case of financial business education as they become increasingly beholden to the activities of for-profit, educational service firms.

Keywords: for-profit education firms, educational services, advanced producer services, finance, cultural economy, globalisation


Education is increasingly being framed by policymakers, firms and organizations as a service industry, capable of promoting economic growth within ‘knowledge based economies'. For example, several national governments and educational organisations have begun to value higher education as an ‘export industry'. In the case of the UK, it is estimated that international exports in education, including income from international student fees and the provision of private sector training and consultancy, were worth nearly £28bn in 2007 (British Council, 2007; see also Olds, 2007). Meanwhile, research has drawn attention to the ways in which individuals within ‘knowledge based economies' seek to strategically accumulate credentials in order to enhance their own employability and career progression (Waters, 2009). The framing of education as a source of increased economic competitiveness has also been seized on as a source of potential profit by a comparatively new type of education provider – for-profit, educational service firms (OECD, 2002). These companies range in size from specialist boutiques through to multinational corporations such as Apollo Global. This is a self-styled ‘educational investment company', a fifth of which is owned by the private equity firm Carlyle. In addition to running the private Phoenix University in the US, Apollo has stakes in universities in Mexico and Chile and bought the UK business education provider BPP in June 2009 for £303.5m.

Using this empirical focus, we argue that in order to understand the international expansion of for-profit, financial business education it is necessary to explore how a range of new educational courses and credentials have been developed that can successfully compete with more established forms of education provision. In the case of financial business education, this means competing with the gold standard of business education - MBA degrees taught by leading business schools. In this respect, the cultural capital (Bourdieu, 1986) associated with MBA degrees poses a significant potential challenge to the ability of educational service firms to devise new credentials that individuals and their employers will view as a valuable form of investment in their human capital (Becker, 1993). Indeed, the ongoing value attributed to holding an MBA is demonstrated by the continued increase in MBA students despite high profile criticisms that question the credential's contemporary relevance and even implicate it in causing recent financial crises such as the accountancy scandals in the US in the early 2000s and the global financial crisis widely dated back to August 2007 (Mintzberg, 2004; Caulkin, 2008).

We argue that combining work in economic geography on the internationalisation of service industries beyond education (see Bryson et al, 2004) with cultural economy approaches to market making provides a valuable conceptual toolkit with which to examine how financial business education firms have sought to compete with business schools. In particular, we draw on Slater's (2002) work on processes of product stabilisation and destablisation and Callon's (2007) work on market framing and overflowing to examine how for-profit, financial business education firms develop new educational services and products that are sold to address the weaknesses their customers associate with MBA degrees. First, we explore how educational boutiques that specialise in teaching quantitative finance seek to destabilise MBA degrees by producing new educational credentials and services that focus on the practical application of quantitative finance in financial services, rather than emphasising its theoretical underpinnings as has been more typical in MBA programs. Second, we consider how multinational educational service firms have launched a new credential, the Chartered Financial Analyst Program, to compete with MBA degrees.

We develop these arguments over five further sections. Following this Introduction, we consider how work on the internationalisation of service firms and cultural economy approaches to market making can be combined in order to understand the growth of for-profit educational service firms. Next, we document the emerging for-profit financial business education landscape related to investment banking. Then in sections four and five we consider how two distinct types of financial business educational service firms (boutiques and multinationals) with offices in London seek to compete with MBA degrees. We conclude by considering the broader implications of this research for work in both economic geography and the geographies and sociologies of education concerning international educational service industries (Robertson et al, 2002). We argue that understanding the growth of educational service firms in this way is important not only in the case of finance but also in terms of education more generally as these firms are increasingly expanding their operations into other educational landscapes, notably higher education.

Cultural economy and international educational service firms

In terms of the international expansion of education providers, particular attention has been paid to higher education institutions (see, for instance, Robertson, 2006). For example, Olds' (2007) analysis of Singapore's Global Schoolhouse program identifies a number of different approaches to globalization used by predominately ‘Western' universities as they began to offer educational services within Singapore in the 1990s and early 2000s. These models ranged from the ‘partnership model' in which staff and student exchanges take place between two university campuses and knowledge is shared between institutions in terms of strategic developments to the ‘network model' in which new campuses are opened overseas or international institutions merge. Olds (2007) considers how these developments can be understood with reference to the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) terminology. In so doing, he signals how higher education institutions are positioned as service providers within a wider policy arena aimed at developing the competitiveness of the Singaporean ‘knowledge based economy'. In order to develop this approach to education as a service industry beyond universities, we turn to work on the internationalisation of service firms.

This literature has been heavily influenced by Dunning and Norman's (1983; 1987) work on the ownership, location and international scale benefits that drive geographical expansion. Of particular importance for this paper is Bryson et al's (2004) development of this framework for service industries that in many ways complements Olds' (2007) analysis in the education sector. For example, ownership advantages held by a firm considering internationalisation over a rival ‘local' firm include the firm's reputation and the knowledge embodied in its workforce, something that can be seen in the reputational capital of business schools such as INSEAD that opened an international campus in Singapore in 2000. Meanwhile, international advantages include the internationalising firm's capability to draw on existing knowledge about a client as they service them in new geographical locations and the ability to control the quality of services delivered at an international scale. In terms of universities, this approach can be seen in the announcement made in 2005 by the then Chicago Graduate School of Business that it would relocate its European campus from Barcelona to London, a decision that reflects the importance of financial services within its client base (see Hall, 2009).

In addition to considering why firms internationalise, research has identified different modes of internationalisation ranging from organic, new office openings through alliances and partnerships to mergers and acquisition (see Bartlett and Ghoshal, 1998). Research has also documented how firms deliver services globally through activities such as expatriation, trans-local knowledge management schemes and international business travel (see Faulconbridge, 2006; Jones, 2008). Again, these strategies and employment practices clearly overlap with the types of activities currently being undertaken by universities through activities such as faculty and student exchanges. This reflects the fact that work on the internationalisation of service firms has been developed predominately in relation to mature, well established services such as finance, law and accounting. Much less attention has been paid to newly emerging service industries such as education (although see Faulconbridge et al, 2008 and Coe et al, 2007 in the case of the headhunting and temporary staffing industries respectively).

This oversight is significant because whilst some of the methods of internationalisation are similar, newly emerging service firms, such as those operating in education, face the additional challenge of legitimating new products to clients in order to internationalise. This challenge that does not normally face firms operating in more mature sectors or well-established higher education institutions as they typically adapt existing service provision to new geographical markets. In the case of educational service firms, this means successfully presenting new educational services and credentials as being a valuable alternative to established MBA degrees. In order to develop understandings of how educational service firms are seeking to achieve this, we argue that cultural economy work on market making can be productively combined with work on the internationalisation of service firms.

Making Business Education Markets

As Berndt and Boeckler (2009:536) have argued recently, there is a widespread acceptance within the social sciences that “markets do not simply fall out of thin air, but are continually produced and constructed socially with the help of actors who are interlinked in dense and extensive webs of social relations”. We suggest that this process of making markets is precisely what employees of business education firms are engaged in as they seek to develop their market share within business education markets that have historically been dominated by MBA degrees. However, whilst social scientists increasingly acknowledge the processural nature of markets, a number of different conceptual approaches have emerged in order to theorise such activities. Berndt and Boeckler (2009) identify three: first socio-economic approaches that emphasize the social relations involved in reproducing markets through concepts such as relationality and networks; second, political economy approaches that focus on the destructive tendencies of markets with a particular focus on labour relations; and third, cultural economy approaches that emphasize the ways in which market actors actualize markets through the performance of a range of different types of economic knowledges such as marketing, legal expertise and finance.

In this paper, we suggest that the third of these approaches is instructive in advancing understandings of the emergence of new educational services because it considers how goods and services (such as educational courses) are converted into commodities that can be bought and sold. In particular, we draw on Callon's (2007) work on framing and overflowing in which he argues that in order for markets to be developed

stable, tradable objects have to be constructed by emphasizing particular qualities in unambiguous and unchallenged ways and – by doing so – excluding certain relations. (Berndt and Boeckler, 2009: 543).

Callon (2007) goes on to use the term overflowing to signal that these framings are always fragile and never totally completed. This echoes work that has pointed to the ways in which commodities are never totally disentangled from other relations (Lee, 2006; Miller, 2002). For example, Slater (2002) focuses on what he terms the stabilisation and destabilisation of products within markets. Whilst stabilisation in some ways echoes Callon's (2007) work on framing, Slater uses the term destabilisation to point to the conflictual and competitive nature of such activities as market actors seek to frame or stabilise commodities in ways most advantageous to themselves.

In this respect, we suggest that it is the recent destabilisation of MBA degrees that has opened up ‘space' for educational service firms to compete with business schools in the financial business education sector by attempting to stabilise or frame new educational services and credentials. In particular, we argue that the framing of these new educational services is driven, to a large extent, by the demands of customers (particularly investment banks) because educational service firms are ultimately seeking to develop profitable educational services. As a result, we consider how the services offered by educational services firms operating in finance are framed in relation to the perceived shortcomings of MBA degrees, through emphasising, for example, the ways in which they can be more easily tailored to different corporate cultures or geographical locations. In so doing, our research responds to the comparative neglect of geography in much of the cultural economy literature on market making to date (see Berndt and Boeckler, 2009) by examining how the specific demands of investment banks in London shapes the nature (or framing) of financial business education service provision.


The research reported below comprises ninety interviews conducted with: investment bankers working in London to discuss their business education experiences (38 interviews); business school lecturers and managers in both the US and UK (36 interviews); human resource managers in investment banks in London (6 interviews); and educators and managers in for-profit specialist financial business education companies and charitable organisations in the UK (10 interviews). Interviews were conducted between March 2006 and September 2009 and lasted between thirty minutes and one hour. Interviews were transcribed in full (with one exception) and analysed iteratively with empirical material informing theoretical thinking and vice versa. This interview data was triangulated with: analysis of secondary data from financial business course handbooks and publicity material; policy reports concerning financial services skills needs (e.g. Financial Services Skills Council) and; relevant press such as The Financial Times.

Educational service firms and the financial business education landscape

Compared to other advanced producer service industries, such as legal services and management consultancy that started to grow significantly following the Second World War, the period of significant growth for financial business education firms is far more recent. Whilst a small number of firms were founded in the 1970s, the most intense period of growth began in the 1980s, mirroring the period of significant deregulation in a number of financial markets such as Big Bang in London. For example, one of the largest firms, BPP Professional was founded in 1976 in order to provide education in professional accountancy qualifications. It listed on the London Stock Exchange in 1986 and developed educational courses for a range of ‘professions' (loosely understood) including legal services and human resources as well as finance.

Despite this relatively short history, the for-profit financial business education sector has grown considerably with firms varying in size from multinational companies through to smaller boutiques (see Table 1). The precise number of such companies in operation is unknown because it is a largely unregulated industry and the barriers to entry in terms of accreditation are comparatively low. However, in the UK the Financial Services Skills Council (FSSC) runs a voluntary accreditation scheme and in February 2009, 20 for-profit education firms and 23 individual sole-operators were registered. That said, the number of providers is likely to be significantly higher because the sector follows the organisational structure of other business service industries with a relatively small number of transnational corporations (such as Apollo and Kaplan) accompanied by a larger number of specialist boutiques and sole-operator providers.

Table 1: For-profit financial business education service firms operating in London

Educational Service Firm

Year Founded

Geographical Operations

Type of Education



Europe, Americas, Africa, Asia, Australia

Technical and Regulatory expertise


FTC Kaplan


Europe, Americas, Africa, Asia, Australia



UK, Bulgaria, China, Czech Republic, Hungary, Ireland, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia

7 City Learning


Europe, Americas, Africa, Asia, Australia

Terrapinn Training


Europe, Middle-East, Americas


Chartered Institute for Securities and Investment (formerly Securities and Investment Institute, SII)


Europe, Middle East, Asia, Australia



Europe, Middle East, Asia Pacific, Africa, Americas

IFS School of Learning



International Faculty of Finance (IFF) Training


UK, Asia

Euromoney Training


UK, Asia Pacific, Middle East, Africa, Americas

CIFT Financial Training Solutions

Over 15 years ago

Europe, Americas, Africa, Asia, Australia



UK, Asia, Americas

Financial Mechanics


Europe, Americas, Africa, Asia

Technical expertise

Redcliffe Training Associates


London, Moscow

Technical expertise and Psyknowledges

Lane 4


Europe, US, Asia Pacific


Source: Fieldwork

This growth reflects two wider changes in the nature of financial services. First, the relationship between post-compulsory education and financial services, particularly investment banking, has changed significantly recently. For example, in the UK prior to the de-regulatory changes of the 1980s, emphasis was placed on educational background in terms of entering a financial services career. This is exemplified by the ‘old boys networks' created at a small number of public schools and Oxbridge that were instrumental in creating trust-based relationships between overwhelmingly male financiers in London (Thrift, 1994; Michie, 1998; Cain and Hopkins, 2002). However, reflecting the growing power of discourses of ‘knowledge based economies' and the emphasis placed in policy making communities on the need for highly skilled labour within financial services (HM Treasury, 2009), education and training throughout the career life-course has increasingly been framed as a way of enhancing economic and corporate competitiveness within financial services (Hall, 2009).

Second, despite the continued cultural capital of MBA degrees as a form of management education in general, criticisms have emerged concerning their relevance within contemporary financial services, not least with reference of the ongoing global financial crisis (Caulkin, 2008). In terms of finance, these criticisms stem from the fact that the growing use of quantitative financial theory underpinning financial products such as structured finance and derivatives increasingly demands highly specialist mathematical skills that are argued to be too advanced to be taught on generic MBA programmes (FSSC, 2008). Business schools have responded by establishing Masters in Finance programmes that explicitly focus on teaching research-led quantitative finance (Bradshaw, 2007). However, for-profit financial business education firms (such as 7City Learning and Financial Mechanics) have also responded by developing a series of courses that specialise in precisely these higher-level applied quantitative finance and modelling skills.

Moreover, in addition to education in quantitative finance, business education firms have seized on the changing nature of financial services and the debates concerning MBA degrees to develop a range of new educational services and credentials that focus on particular ‘psy-knowledges' (Rose, 1998) such as leadership and emotional intelligence as well as education aimed at meeting financial regulatory clearances (see Table 1). Rather than simply describing this changing financial education landscape, in what follows we present two case studies of attempts to ‘stabilise' (Slater, 2002) two contrasting types of educational services. For each, we begin by outlining the firm's growth before discussing the market stabilisation and destabilisation tactics that were used to facilitate this expansion.

For-profit educational services in quantitative finance

The first part of the for-profit financial business education landscape that we concentrate on are educational services that specialise in the teaching and learning of quantitative finance in London. In terms of our focus on educational services sold to investment banks, the demand for advanced mathematical knowledge and technical know-how is associated with the growing use of a range of what Callon (1998) terms ‘calculative devices' used to calculate and predict the risks and returns associated with investments such as the Black Scholes option pricing model, Monte Carlo simulations and stochastic probability modelling. The demand for these types of skills has increased as investment banks have moved away from traditional ‘relationship' banking approaches to more technical business models (Augar, 2009). This has resulted in an increasing preference for hiring financiers with postgraduate qualifications, particularly PhDs, in maths and physics rather than the generalist education provided by MBA degrees alone (Wilmott, 2000) as the following example demonstrates

the sort of love affair with the MBA seemed to be coming to an end [a few years ago] it comes back to the quant [quantitative] skills, MBAs are actually too general and what they [investment banks] are looking for often for entry level roles is people with a Masters in something very specialised, it's not even just in finance, it may be computational finance or something very, very specific. (Director, Professional Association, London, February 2009).

In response, specialist education firms have carved out a powerful position for themselves in providing education that specialises in these ‘calculative devices'. Typically, these firms have grown organically from modest beginnings, rather than being part of multinational, established education service firms. Boutique Financial exemplifies this trend1. It was founded in London in the early 2000s with seven staff, coinciding with the rapid growth in quantitative finance from the mid to late 1990s onwards. By the time of writing it had grown to include 120 employees as well as 40 full time trainers and educators offering training in technical forms of financial knowledge. This growth is reflected in the fact that in 2009 nine of the top ten investment banks globally are clients of Boutique Financial including Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase and Merrill Lynch. Like other for-profit quantitative finance boutiques, Boutique Financial offers education in quantitative finance through its own self-styled certificates and also through contributions to in-house training courses run by investment banks. Topics covered in this respect include: capital structure and corporate finance; economic and financial markets; credit and equity derivatives; pricing and trading options; and financial modelling. Courses typically last between half a day and three days with investment banks sending employees on a series of courses to complete a full training programme over one year.

In order to expand in this way, companies such as Boutique Financial have had to challenge the historical dominance of business schools and position themselves as what Latour (2005) terms ‘obligatory passage points' in the reproduction of quantitative financial theory in practice. In what follows we explore the strategies used by educational service firms to achieve this and the responses of business schools.

(De)stabilising Educational Services in Quantitative Finance

Prior to the significant expansion of educational services firms specialising in quantitative finance, the most important form of education for investment bankers relating to quantitative finance were MBA degrees from leading business schools. Indeed, in the mid to late twentieth century, business schools played an important role in legitimating financial economies as both an academic discipline and its widespread use in financial services practice with the most well-known example being the then Chicago Graduate School of Business (Bernstein, 1992; Dezalay and Garth, 2002). In order to ‘destabilise' (Slater, 2002) business schools' educational services in quantitative finance, employees of educational service firms in London have drawn on recent criticisms concerning the relevance of MBA degrees (Caulkin, 2008) to stress the ways in which teaching abstract financial theory on MBA degrees does not represent a valuable investment in human capital (Becker, 1993). In particular, they have sought to frame a disjuncture between the fast paced development of applied quantitative finance in financial services practice and the abstract financial theories and slow curricula development of MBA degrees as an employee at Boutique Financial described

the problem with teaching in quantitative finance is that a) most people who do it in universities have never been outside the university in their career, b) they have to give a course on quantitative finance because there is so much money in it, so even if people in the university have no experience of quantitative finance they still will put on a masters programme, […] you get some professors who are fantastic at their abstract measure theory, the next thing you know they've tagged themselves as experts in quantitative finance and that's a complete con, a complete rip-off! (Educator, Boutique Financial, September 2008).

Such a position reflects Callon's (2007) argument that ‘economists in the wild' (in the case of this paper investment bank employees) play an important role in developing economic and financial theory through practice in addition to ‘confined economists' working in universities and business schools. Such developments clearly challenge business schools' established position in legitimating and circulating quantitative financial theory (on which see Dezalay and Garth, 2002). Business schools in the UK, and globally, have responded by offering more specialist Masters in Finance degrees that seek to combat the difficulties of teaching advanced and rapidly changing financial economics on MBA courses that remain generic management training programmes as one business school manager explained

[the University] saw the case for the post-experience masters in finance … but also drew attention to the possibility of if there was a market, if you want to put it in commercial terms, for a post-experience course (Manager, Business School, June 2008).

However, business education firms emphasise how even these masters courses cannot be tailored to the rapidly changing demands and differing organisational cultures of potential clients (see Hall, 2008) as the following research participant summarised

What we discovered on the [name of technical finance course] […] there wasn’t a decent Masters in Finance [that’s] built around people’s requirements and then you get to the heart of the issue which is what is the purpose of a qualification, it [the Masters in Finance] is inherently out of date because [of] the quality assurance process […] and yet the market moves […] quick enough that antiquated processes of building syllabus [sic] doesn’t work. (Educator, Boutique Financial, September 2008).

Having attempted to destabilise the value of MBA degrees in this way, business education service firms specialising in quantitative finance have then sought to frame their own educational services in particular ways in order to expand their operations. Two strategies are particularly significant in this respect in the UK context. First, when selling their courses to potential clients, they respond to the weaknesses of MBA degrees by emphasising the ways in which their educational services can be tailored to the specific needs of different investment banks as the following example shows

Syllabuses (sic) should not be driven from up high, they should follow the FSA's [Financial Services Authority] … philosophy which is principles driven … [the qualifications], they are largely driven by client demand […] we will help new bodies try and launch some of their own qualifications. (Manager, Boutique Financial, London, August 2008).

This tailoring of courses to client demand takes the form of focusing on the practical application of quantitative financial techniques that bank employees can potentially profit out of rather than emphasising financial theory in an abstract sense. This is typically achieved by offering courses in-house within investment banks such that the ‘student's are employees of the same bank. In so doing, courses can be tailored to the specific corporate culture (Schoenberger, 1997) of the bank in question. Courses are typically incorporated into early career induction programmes for new recruits or are offered at a more advanced level to more senior employees as the following example demonstrates

clients will come to us and say we want a 4 week grad programme or we want to do a course on derivatives […] so we will adapt it and then they'll say we want it very interactive because its sales guys or we actually want it on a spreadsheet because its for product control guys so we will work with them on that. (Manager, Boutique Financial, August 2008).

The second strategy used by educational service firms to frame their quantitative financial education products involves tailoring their services to geographical differences in demand. This was achieved by aiming to embed their provision within different national education landscapes as one manager described

I've got operational considerations which is we teach across three different regions, some of our clients expect global consistency but local [nuances] and that's very difficult because you are in a political vipers nest sometimes so I'll engage in those types of things. (Manager, Boutique Financial, London, August 2008).

In the case of London, there has been a growing concern in recent years in policy-making communities concerning the number and quality of highly-skilled numerate graduates emerging in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and medicine, see for example CBI, 2008). This was reflected amongst the human resources managers in investment banks we interviewed as the following example demonstrates

I guess very generally there has been actually a problem with British students coming into banking. We find that they are just not coming through the interview process or screening process […] there is a slight concern especially on the... UK M&A banking side, they are not seeing enough British students full-time coming into the organization and I think that's probably true across the board of most banks actually. (Human Resources Director, Investment Bank, November 2008).

In response, rather than emphasising the links between research and course content as is typical of MBA degrees, business education service firms specialising in quantitative finance in the UK framed their educational products in terms of their inclusion of basic mathematical training explicitly aimed at financial services at the start of each program. In addition to revealing the importance of geographical context in processes of framing, these course structures also point to the ways in which boutique educational service firms frame their educational services as being a cost-effective investment in the ‘human capital' (Becker, 1993) of employees on the part of investment banks. For example, Boutique Financial launched its own credential in London in 2003 that focuses on mathematical skills in quantitative finance. The six-month program is based around evening study and is marketed as being ‘more flexible, targeted and cost effective than any university financial engineering program'2. Indeed, although it is taught in the evenings, three quarters of students taking the course study either by dialling into the lectures in real-time over the internet or using podcasts of the sessions to guide their own study. Crucially for our arguments in this paper, this course is underpinned by a basic ‘maths primer' before developing the more applied quantitative financial modelling that typifies this segment of the financial business education landscape as one of the educators on the course described

Well it starts off with classical quantitative finance and numerical methods and risk management and over the course of the six months it develops into, we start criticising the models and proving the models, we show people how to test the models and explain why the theories lots of people like, why they don’t work, how they can be improved so it’s very practical from that sense. (Educator, Boutique Financial, London, September 2008).

Whilst the growth of companies such as Boutique Financial has been impressive as shown in Table 1, it is important to note that business schools are responding. In particular, and in addition to offering Masters of Finance degrees as discussed above, they are increasingly seeking to tailor their educational provision to different corporate cultures, firm requirements and geographically nuanced demand for financial business education. Notable developments in this respect include offering executive MBA degrees in which individuals combine work with study and by establishing management courses in-house within investment banks such as the MacQuarie business school run by INSEAD (on which see Hall, 2008). However, both business schools and specialist educational service firms also face challenges to the stabilisation of their educational services and products from large, multinational education companies and it is to this section of the for-profit financial business education landscape that we now turn.

Multinational education companies and new ‘global' credentials

Rather than specialising in one narrow form of technical expertise, education provided by large (often multinational), well-established for-profit education providers typically focuses on education in a range of regulatory principles and practices as well as courses that lead to accreditation with professional bodies.

Finance International is an indicative example of one such private education provider. It is the financial arm of a large multinational training and education company that is owned by a media company. In addition to its financial education services, the company also offers a range of courses to other professions (notably accountancy and legal services) and runs its own private university. Unlike Boutique Financial, it is a US company that opened its London financial education and training offices in 1993. In total, it operates in 36 companies globally including Canada, Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Australia and it self-identifies as offering “an array of opportunities to an audience that is truly global”. Indeed, it offers not only educational services but also broader ‘career services' to its clients such as CV and career development coaching as the following example demonstrates

We have a wide range of different professional development programmes which are short courses, continuous professional development is very, very large […] Another major area, […] of the business especially at this time of year is obviously the graduate and intern population and we deliver a vast range of professional graduate and intern programmes. (Manager, Finance International, September 2008).

Rather than linking its services to developments in technical expertise as in the case of Boutique Financial, Finance International concentrates on the accredited sector of the financial business education market, specialising in education aimed at allowing financiers to hold particular credentials that are needed to secure regulatory clearance to practice as a financier. For example, in the UK, financiers must demonstrate that they are ‘competent' to practice. Competency is defined by the Financial Services Authority (FSA) and can be evidenced through acquiring a set of credentials from the list of what the FSA deems to be ‘appropriate' examinations (a list maintained by the Financial Services Skills Council) that are taught by companies such as Finance International (Hall and Appleyard, 2009).

As such, in London, Finance International concentrates on preparing investment bankers for accredited examinations run by organisations such as the Securities and Investment Institute and the Chartered Financial Analyst Society of the UK. Despite this emphasis on accredited education in which syllabi are not determined by the education firm but by regulatory bodies Finance International also emphasises its capability to tailor syllabi to particular organisational cultures associated with different investment banks as the following example demonstrates

you are actually trying to deliver a tailored programme that not only articulates the regulatory position, it articulates the value proposition around the product, it articulates how you might actually sell that and differentiate Merrill Lynch against JP Morgan or Goldman Sachs against Royal Bank of Scotland. (Manager, Finance International, September 2008).

Whilst in some ways this aim to stabilise an educational product that meets the bespoke demands of different potential customers echoes our discussion of specialist quantitative finance business education firms above, in other ways the stabilisation and destabilisation of educational products in this part of the financial business education landscape is rather different.

(De)stabilising Educational Services Provided by Multinational Education Service Firms

Rather than destabilising the established financial business education provided by business schools on the basis of the content of their curriculum, large multinational education service companies focus on demonstrating the relative quality of their educational services in comparison to business schools. Two strategies are particularly important in this respect. First, in order to compete with the cultural capital (Bourdieu, 1986) embodied within established MBA degrees, multinational financial business education companies use the accreditation that they secure to offer regulatory-based education as a marker of quality. For example, in the UK each of the courses related to credentials needed to demonstrate FSA competency is authorised by a national body, most notably the Securities and Investment Institute and the Chartered Financial Analyst Society of the UK. These bodies then certify the educational providers that offer such courses. Rather than simply using this certification to offer the specified regulatory-based education, multinational education companies use this certification as a mark of quality in relation to their educational services more generally as the following respondent summarised

We work very, very closely with the main accredited bodies both on the accountancy side and the financial markets side to make sure that we adhere to the high quality standards that they put in place and in most cases we try and surpass these. (Manager, Finance International, September 2008).

Indeed, Finance International is indicative in terms of offering this type of regulatory education. In order to offer it, it has actively sought the relevant accreditation from the bodies that certify this type of education in the different jurisdictions in which it operates. This includes the Securities and Investment Institute (2004), the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants and the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (2008) in the UK and the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (2006) in the US. The strategic accumulation of such accreditation not only allows them to offer regulatory based education but can be used as a mark of quality by financial education firms in response to broader concerns surrounding the quality of teaching in universities in the UK more generally (Curtis, 2009; Hurst, 2009).

The second strategy used by multinational education companies to stabilise their educational products develops this comparison with business schools more explicitly. Here, they have developed a global, generic credential to directly compete with MBA and Masters in Finance degrees offered by business schools – the Chartered Financial Analyst Program. This credential was created in 1963 by the Chartered Financial Analyst Institute and is aimed at early career financiers within the first five years of their career. In order to hold the credential, individuals need to hold a first degree, pass three exams related to courses designated by the CFA Institute but taught by certified multinational companies and have 48 months or relevant work experience. As such, it represents an attempt to professionalise financial services by using education in an attempt to formalise the knowledge base deemed necessary to practice as a financial analyst in investment banking (see Abbott 1988 for a broader discussion of professionalization projects). This credential is positioned in direct relation to the more established MBA degree but educational service firms seek to develop its cultural capital in terms of its relevance rather than its illustrious history as is more typical of MBA degrees as the following example demonstrates

the one kind of qualification that has hit the marketplace by storm is the CFA which is these days become very much the benchmark qualification probably in preference to most Masters in Finance or MBAs which is a little bit controversial to say but that, I think, is probably the reality of the situation and I think its very much if you can get a Masters in Finance or an MBA, the first thing people ask is where did you get your MBA from? Whereas with the CFA nobody needs to ask that question, they know exactly what you have been through, they know exactly what areas you have covered and what they are getting at the end of the day. (Manager, Finance International, September 2008).

Moreover, and echoing the ways in which flexibility in terms of delivery is seen as one way of destabilising the dominance of MBA degrees, companies such as Financial International were keen to highlight the flexible ways in which individuals can obtain such a qualification:

So things like the CFA […] have been a key way of differentiating oneself from one's peers, especially when you have a list of people and you are looking at who is staying [in employment] and who is going […] and I think we've seen an upturn [in this type of credential] in evenings and weekends. (Manager, Finance international, September 2008).

Indeed, the growth of the CFA certificate has been impressive with recent figures suggesting that more than 68,000 individuals have successfully obtained the credential since 1990 and more than 116,000 individuals have studied for it since 2006 (Johnson et al, 2009).

In addition to seeking to match the global recognition accorded to MBA degrees, the global scale of the CFA is also strategically important for the development of multinational educational services firms. Echoing Dunning and Norman's (1983) identification of the reasons why firms internationalise, educational service firms have expanded by following their existing clients' demand for financial education in new geographical markets, meeting this with standardised global credentials such as the CFA as the following example demonstrates

there was one global bank that has huge representation in the Americas and Asia-Pacific, […] they were looking for one global provider for one specific deliverable who had premises across each of the regions and we were the only provider that they could actually get to do that and one of the things that […we] do bring to the table is that global presence. I mean when you actually start to articulate […] size of the tutor faculty globally which is running into thousands it's a very, very powerful argument for organizations that are looking for a common deliverable right across the globe. (Manager, Finance International, September 2008).

Taken together, these two strategies (accreditation and launching the CFA) have been used successfully to respond to the challenges facing MBA degrees in order to facilitate the development of multinational education service firms offering education based around regulatory and professional principles. By simultaneously destabilising MBA degrees whilst attempting to stabilise new forms of financial business education, both these multinational firms and more specialist boutiques have altered significantly the financial business education marketplace to create greater space for a for-profit financial business education service industry.


In this paper, we have combined insights from work in economic geography on the internationalisation of service firms with cultural economy approaches to market making, particularly the work of Slater (2002) and Callon (2007) to develop understandings of the growth of educational service firms. In particular, we have focused on one of the largest such educational landscapes – that associated with financial business education sold to investment banks. Through this case study, we have suggested that the recent growth of such firms relies on the twin processes of destabilising established educational services and credentials (in the case of this paper MBA degrees taught by leading business schools) and simultaneously attempting to stabilise or frame new forms of education provision. Using this conceptual framework we have explored the contrasting ways in which stabilisation and destabilisation work for specialist financial business education boutiques and multinational educational service firms. Strategies used in this respect range from demonstrating the practical applicability of the knowledge circulated through financial business education to the development of new markers of quality such as accreditation schemes and new credentials to compete with MBA degrees.

Theoretically, by focusing on educational service firms, our research develops work on processes of corporate internationalisation within the service sector of ‘knowledge based economies' by highlighting the unique challenges facing firms operating in relatively ‘young' service sectors. In contrast to more mature services such as law and accounting, the case of financial business education reveals how the growth of these emerging service industries relies on responding to and enhancing client critiques of extant provision in order to create and legitimate new services and products. Our research suggests that work on the framing and stabilisation of commodities within cultural economy offers a valuable way of understanding the strategies used by such firms as they seek to challenge established service providers by framing products and services in geographically and organisationally nuanced ways in order to expand their operations.

Meanwhile, in terms of changing educational landscapes, our research highlights the ongoing challenges facing the MBA degree, something that is only likely to become more pronounced following the global financial crisis widely dated back to August 2007. More broadly, our focus on for-profit financial business education firms is valuable because it signals some of the ways in which current public education may change as a result of growing private sector involvement (Hurst, 2009). For example, the introduction of fees in the UK higher education sector has positioned students as increasingly powerful customers with potentially significant implications for the nature of higher education in the future, particularly if the sector is opened up to increasing for-profit provision (see Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, 2009). Understanding how for-profit educational service firms in a well-developed for-profit educational landscape such as financial business education respond to customer dissatisfaction with established forms of education provision in order to develop new educational services provides important insights into how higher education may change as for-profit education firms increasingly target this educational landscape. As such, developing understandings of the activities of rapidly growing for-profit educational services firms is important for researchers interested in both the development of service industries and the changing nature of a range of educational landscapes within ‘knowledge based economies' more generally – a research agenda that this paper has sought to initiate.


Abbott A, 1988 The system of professions: an essay on the division of expert labour (Chicago University Press, Chicago)

Augar P, 2009 Chasing alpha: how reckless growth and unchecked ambition ruined the City's Golden Decade (Bodley Head, London)

Ball S, 2007 Education plc: understanding private sector participation in public sector education (Routledge, London)

Bartlett C, Ghoshal S, 1998 Managing across borders: the transnational solution (Random House, New York)

Beaverstock J V, Smith R, Taylor P J, 1999, ‘The long arm of the law: London's law firms in a globalising world economy' Environment and Planning A 31 1857-1876

Becker G S 1993 Human capital: a theoretical and empirical analysis with special reference to education (Chicago University Press: Chicago)

Berndt C, Boeckler M, 2009 ‘Geographies of circulation and exchange: construction of markets' Progress in Human Geography 33 4 535-551

Bernstein P, 1992 Capital Ideas: The improbable origins of modern Wall Street (Free Press, New York)

Bourdieu P, 1986, ‘The forms of capital' In Handbook of theory and research for the sociology of education Ed J G, Richardson (Greenwood Press, New York) pp241-58

Bradshaw D, 2007, ‘Judge introduces finance masters' Financial Times, 17 December,,Authorised=false.html?

British Council, 2007, Global Value: the value of UK education and training exports,

Bryson J, Daniels P, Henry N, Pollard J, 2004 Knowledge, space, economy (Routledge, London)

Cain P J, Hopkins A G, 2002 British Imperialism 1688-2000 (Longman, London)

Callon M, 1998 The laws of the markets (Blackwell, London)

Callon M, 2007, ‘What does it mean to say that economics is performative' in Do economists make markets? On the performativity of economies Eds D MacKenzie, F Muniesa, L Sui (Princeton University press, Princeton) pp311-357

Caulkin S, 2008, ‘When it came to the crunch, MBAs didn't help' The Observer 26 October, page 8

CBI, 2008, Taking stock: CBI education and skills survey 2008 (Confederation of British Industry, London)

Coe N A, Johns J L, Ward K (2007) ‘Mapping the globalization of the temporary staffing industry' Professional Geographer 59, 503-520

Curtis P, 2009, ‘ Conservative education spokesman says quality must improve to justify rise in fees' The Guardian 10 October,

Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, 2009, Higher Ambitions: the future of universities in a knowledge economy (DBIS: London)

Dezalay Y, Garth B, 2002, The Internationalization of palace wars: lawyers, economists, and the contest to transform Latin American States (University of Chicago Press: Chicago)

Dunning J H, Norman G, 1983, ‘The theory of multinational enterprise: an application of multinational office location' Environment and Planning A 15 675-692

Dunning J H, Norman G, 1987, ‘The location choice of offices of international companies' Environment and Planning A 19 613-631

Faulconbridge J R, 2006, ‘Stretching tacit knowledge beyond a local fix? Global spaces of learning in advertising professional service firms' Journal of Economic Geography 6 517-540

Faulconbridge J R, Hall S, Beaverstock J V, 2008, ‘New insights into the internationalization of producer services: organizational strategies and spatial economies for global headhunting firms' Environment and Planning A 40 1 210-234

FSSC, 2008 London market skills review (Financial Services Skills Council: London)

Hanson Thiem C, 2008, ‘Thinking through education: the geographies of contemporary educational restructuring' Progress in Human Geography 33 2 154-173

Hall S, 2008, ‘Geographies of business education: MBA programmes, reflexive business schools and the cultural circuit of capital' Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers NS 33 27-41

Hall S, 2009, ‘Ecologies of business education and the geographies of knowledge' Progress in Human Geography 33 599-618

Hall S, Appleyard L, 2009, ‘City of London, City of Learning'? Placing business education within the geographies of finance' Journal of Economic Geography 9 597-617

HM Treasury, 2009 ‘UK international financial services – the future. A report from UK based financial leaders to the Government' (HM Treasury, London)

Hurst G, 2009, ‘Undergraduates should be given 'consumer rights', says Lord Mandelson' The Times, 4 November,

Johnson R J, Squires J R, MacKey P B, and Lamy B, 2009 The CFA Program: Into our fifth decade (The CFA Institute, Charlottesville, VA)

Jones A, 2008, ‘The rise of global work' Transactions, Institute of British Geographers 33 12-26

Latour B, 2005 Reassembling the social: an introduction to actor-network-theory (Oxford University Press, Oxford)

Lee R, 2006, ‘The ordinary economy: tangled up in values and geography' Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 31, 413-32

McDowell L, 1997 Capital Culture: Gender at Work in the City (Blackwell, Oxford)

MacLeod D, 2006, ‘Law school given degree-awarding powers' The Guardian 8 May,

Michie R C, 1998, ‘Insiders, outsiders and the dynamics of change in the City of

London since 1900' Journal of Contemporary history 33 4 547-571

Miller D, 2002, ‘Turning Callon the right way up' Economy and Society 31 2 218-233

Mintzberg H, 2004 Managers not MBAs: A hard look at the soft practice of managing and management development (Prentice Hall, London)

OECD, 2002 Trade, education and the GATS: What's in, what's out, what's all the fuss about (OECD, Washington)

Olds K, 2007, ‘Global Assemblage: Singapore, Foreign Universities, and the Construction of a ‘Global Education Hub'' World Development 35 6 959-975

Robertson S, Bonal X, Dale R, 2002, ‘GATS and the education service industry' Comparative education review 46 4 472-497

Robertson S L, 2006, ‘The politics of constructing (a competitive) Europe(an) through internationalising higher education: strategies, structures, subjects' Perspectives in Education 24 29-44

Schoenberger E, 1997 The cultural crisis of the firm (Oxford, Blackwell)

Rose N, 1998 Inventing out selves: psychology, power and personhood (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge)

Slater D, 2002, ‘Markets, materiality and the ‘new economy'' in Market relations and the competitive process Eds S Metcalfe, A Warde (Manchester University Press, Manchester) pp95-129

Thrift N, 1994, ‘On the social and cultural determinants of international financial centres: the case study of the City of London' in Money, power and space Eds Corbridge S, Thrift N, Martin R, (Blackwell, Oxford) pp 327-355

Waters J L 2009, ‘In pursuit of scarcity: transnational students, ‘employability' and the MBA' Environment and Planning A 41 1865-1883

Wilmott P, 2000, The use, misuse and abuse of mathematics in finance, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, London A 358 63-73

Yeung H W-C, 2005, ‘Organizational space: a new frontier in international business strategy' Critical Perspectives on International business 1 219-240


*Sarah Hall and Lindsey Appleyard, School of Geography, University of Nottingham, University Park, Nottingham, NG7 2RD, email:

1. Pseudonyms have been given to maintain the anonymity of the case studies presented in this paper. Some dates have been generalised (for example, year of firm formation) to maintain the anonymity of our case studies.

2. Boutique Financial website, last accessed 2 November 2009.

3. Finance International website, last accessed 2 November 2009.


Edited and posted on the web on 9th December 2009

Note: This Research Bulletin has been published in Environment and Planning A, 43 (1), (2011), 10-27