The bursaries are about students who have a financial need and that’s particularly nice to be able to help out… for students it seems to make quite a difference.Dr Aravinda Korala, CEO of KAL
Running a business that depends on cash, Aravinda Korala knows a good investment – which is why he supports our Informatics students.
If you don’t believe the past is a foreign country, just ask Dr Aravinda Korala. It doesn’t seem that long ago when he enrolled as a student at the University of Edinburgh, but he remembers how different things were at his branch of the RBS on Forrest Hill. “You didn’t have to sign anything. They’d say, ‘Oh, hello, Aravinda, is it your usual £10?’ They were allowed to authorise a transaction just because the teller recognised me. It was brilliant.”
That was in 1979 and since then, the financial world has moved on a bit – not least because of the inroads made by Korala’s own company. Soon after completing his undergraduate studies and obtaining a PhD in 1986, the Sri Lankan-born entrepreneur set up KAL and helped it become the world’s leading ATM software provider. Today, with bases in 12 countries, the company creates software for cash machines, self-service kiosks and bank branches the world over.
“We use the word ‘ATM’ as a short-hand term, but really what we’re talking about is self-service machines,” says Aravinda at the KAL headquarters in Edinburgh. “It’s a wider industry than just cash dispensing.”
He points to the ATM machines in Japan that accept cash deposits and recycle the same cash for the next customer’s withdrawals. He explains how in Spain, the ATMs use a pass-book system and can turn the page of each book. And he says that in the USA, an ATM can read a hand-written cheque and recognise whether it has been signed or not. “When you put it together, the complexity is pretty amazing,” he says.
Being involved in such a forward-looking industry, Korala knows how important it is to cultivate the next generation of tech-savvy employees. That’s one of his reasons for supporting students in the School of Informatics, the University’s pioneering department dedicated to the study of computational systems. KAL has two schemes. One offers scholarships of £1000 a year to two undergraduates with an impressive academic record. The other gives bursaries to students for whom finance is an issue.
It makes Aravinda feel good to know he’s giving something back, but his motives are not just about altruism. “It’s about self-interest as well,” he says. “I want to make sure that the students at the University of Edinburgh would consider us as a long-term career. If our self-interest and theirs work together, then that’s great. Having said that, the bursaries are about students who have a financial need and that’s particularly nice to be able to help out. It’s not a huge amount of money but for students it seems to make quite a difference.”
"It was a very big deal to get the scholarship. It was a great boost to my self-confidence"
As one of the current recipients of a KAL scholarship, Ivana Zekto says these kind of awards do wonders for a student’s morale. She’s studying for a BSc in cognitive science and was delighted to be singled out. “It was a very big deal to get the scholarship,” says the 21-year-old from Croatia. “I was completely new to computer science, I’d never done any programming before, and I was very worried that I would be doing really poorly, so it was a great boost to my self-confidence.”
As well as computer science and maths, her course includes social sciences and linguistics. She is currently weighing up whether she should continue her academic career or find employment. “Edinburgh recently opened the Centre for Doctoral Training in Data Science, which is an area I’m interested in, so we’re very fortunate,” she says. “And KAL has been absolutely amazing. They invite everyone who receives their bursaries to come to the company for one afternoon every year and see what they do. It’s genuinely just them being really nice and helping students who do well.”
As for anyone considering setting up a scholarship or bursary, Ivana can’t recommend it enough. “It makes a huge difference psychologically,” she says. “For some big companies, it wouldn’t be a very big deal to give £1000 or £2000 a year to talented students, but for the students it would make a huge difference.”