MBA special: stiff competition

MBA special: stiff competition

Can the MBA stand the test of time, or will a rival qualification emerge as the ticket to the top?

Flexibility, depth, breadth and the ability to respond to market demands will
be the hallmarks of the top business qualifications in the 21st century. And
this might not be through the traditional Masters in Business Administration
route as other qualifications begin to challenge the dominance of this
100-year-old pre-eminent certificate.

The domination of the top end of business education is in part a reflection
of the business schools that have continually adapted their curricula in
response to student demands and, perhaps more importantly, the businesses that
are employing MBA graduates.

‘The key is to make sure that the qualifications are relevant to business,’
Jeanette Purcell, chief executive of the Association of MBAs, says.

One of these demands comes in the form of softer skills, where business
schools are equipping their graduates with the necessary techniques to work
effectively with their colleagues.

‘We have been progressively moving towards emphasising soft skills,’
Professor Andrew Stark, Coutts professor of accountancy and finance at
Manchester Business School, says. ‘Our programmes are characterised by a lot of
project work where students are split into groups to carry out real projects,
not case studies. This has been our response to what employers tell us; they
don’t just want people with technical skills, they need people who can enter an
organisation and know how to work with others.’

According to Stark, employers are looking for people that know how to get on
with people, work with people, organise these people and share with other
people. ‘There is not enough of this in other programmes,’ he says.

Professor Stephan Chambers at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School agrees
that the courses have had to evolve. ‘The curriculum has to change in pace with
the kinds of problems that the world faces,’ he says. ‘For instance, would we
have countenanced an MBA a decade ago having environmental pre-occupations? I
kind of doubt it. Could you imagine that today? Absolutely certainly.’

But Chambers argues that courses in the future will be more about personal
growth rather than the needs of sponsoring employers. ‘Large companies are less
monolithic, more flexible, more distributed and their employees are behaving in
exactly the same way,’ he says.

Such flexibility is particularly attractive to women students, as they can
often be faced with other life decisions such as family commitments, according
to Purcell.

While general MBA courses will continue to give a breadth of education, it is
also likely that the business qualification of the future will be highly focused
on a particular niche.

Saïd Business School has just completed the first year of its Masters in
Financial Economics. This is a full-time, nine-month course aimed squarely at
financial institutions: Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan both recruited a significant
number of this year’s crop of graduates. The course’s popularity, both in the
eyes of students and employers, suggests that similar courses are likely to
spring up in the future.

‘There are two forces at play, one driving [MBAs] to ever-greater
specialisation, where different programmes develop niche specialities, or they
become more intellectually demanding, less about techniques and more about
education,’ Chambers says.

Observers say we should look at the US to see what will happen here in the
future development of high-end business education.

Some US business schools are adapting in areas such as the previous work
experience requirement. This, however, is not a trend recognised by many in
Europe. Indeed, it is a trend that should be resisted, according to Chambers.
Stark agrees: ‘Companies expect a pool of talent with a certain amount of
experience. If you altered that, employers might walk away.’

But there is a long way to go before the MBA’s position is toppled as it
looks set to remain the master of the business world’s qualification of choice
for some time to come.

Jonathan Slack, chief executive of the Association of Business Schools, sees
a growing trend in ‘pre-experience’ courses, programmes that are available to
recent graduates and those with little or no work experience, often aimed at
overseas students. ‘But for a general management, post-experience qualification,
there is nothing to rival an MBA, and there probably won’t be,’ he says.


• For those that do not want to quit their current jobs, there is the
executive MBA, a part-time course that is growing in popularity, with more
business schools than ever offering the opportunity to benefit from an MBA
without the risk of dropping out of the day job.

• There is the Masters in Management (MSc), which is increasing in
popularity, especially as the number of years of work experience expected of
applicants is much lower than the usual four to five years’ requirement of a
full-time MBA. But starting salaries for MSc graduates are lower than those with
an MBA, reflecting this lack of work experience.

• There is also the Doctorate in Business Administration (DBA) which is far
more research-based, but numbers of students studying this option remain low.

• There are very specialised, niche qualifications, like Saïd Business
School’s Masters in Financial Economics, that teach students about the rarefied
theories behind derivatives and hedging, good for financial institutions,
perhaps less useful for manufacturing businesses.

• Chambers also predicts a growth in courses that offer social
entrepreneurship as a core programme. Flexibility in the way that students can
study for these programmes is also playing an important role. As well as the
EMBA, students can opt for distance learning and the Open University is
championing the concept of ‘nearness’ learning, which combines residential
learning with home study.

• However, possibly the most significant developments in the coming years
will be seen in countries such as India and China, as well as parts of South
America. In the past, students would have travelled from these regions to study
in places like the US, the UK, France or Germany. Now they have their own
growing business schools that will be developing programmes relevant to their
country’s needs.

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