January 28, 2013 12:00 am

Exploding the MBA

©Nick Lowndes

Stanford biology graduate Kevin Baum had not considered an MBA when he enrolled on his masters in water science policy and management at the University of Oxford. But during the programme it became clear to him that a business degree might be just what he needed.

“There are a lot of people with great knowledge and skills who do not really know how to take [them] to the next level,” he says.

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So the former teacher and technology consultant enrolled on the 1+1 MBA programme at Oxford’s Saïd Business School. The programme combines the in-depth study of a specialist masters degree – education or environmental studies, for example – with the breadth of a one-year MBA.

For Saïd dean Peter Tufano the programme is one of the most visible manifestations of his attempts to get the business school to work closely with the university. “You can enrich MBA students a tremendous amount if you go beyond business,” he says. “I am trying to burst the MBA bubble.”

Oxford is still a novice in developing these alliances, but even though the 1+1 programme is in its first year, 6 per cent of the 200 students on the Saïd MBA are part of the scheme.

Other business schools are more advanced in promoting combined and dual degrees – MBAs with engineering, medicine and law are particularly popular. In the US, Michigan Ross School of Business and Stanford Graduate School of Business both promote themselves on this – at Stanford one in six MBA students is also studying for another Stanford degree and the school plans to raise this figure to one in four.

At Yale School of Management three out of four MBA students take at least one course outside the management school, says David Bach, senior associate dean for global programmes.

Prof Tufano is using students, who operate at “a social as well as a content level”, to help develop these links. “If I had a bunch of professors who wanted to make that happen, it wouldn’t have happened so quickly … Students don’t respect institutional boundaries. That’s what makes them special.”

Other schools are using different tools to bridge the gap. In the US, the University of Chicago Booth School of Business is using its focus on entrepreneurship, says dean Sunil Kumar, in particular the expansion of its entrepreneurship activities across the university, creating new ventures and helping to commercialise innovation. “We are broadening the definition of what goes into a business school,” he says.

In the UK, Warwick Business School dean Mark Taylor is redesigning the MBA programme to put behavioural science at its core, bringing disciplines such as psychology and anthropology into the business school. “That is the way business and management teaching has to go,” he says.

Urgency for this type of broader education is driven by business need and student demands, says Alison Davis-Blake, dean of Michigan Ross. “Students are not interested in learning about business in isolation,” she says, noting a “profound shift” to interest in the intersection between business, society and government.

“We are never going to solve our problems in the US without the involvement of business.”

For Baum at Oxford, changing the social impact of business is a priority. “We operate the way we do because there is no impetus to change. If your goal is to do the most social good you can, you can be handicapped because there is no funding there. If you can sustain yourself and make a profit, you can expand as much as you like.”

There are a number of other significant trends that are set to accelerate in 2013. All top schools are experimenting with action learning and how to address globalisation and soft skill development.

There is also an increasing demand among students for entrepreneurship programmes. “Employment in a single corporation is no more,” says Prof Davis-Blake. Ilian Mihov, interim dean at Insead, adds: “Over the past five to 10 years the number of entrepreneurship courses has doubled.”

The good news for MBAs in 2012 was an improvement in student placements and an increase in internships, particularly at the top schools. At Chicago Booth, ranked 10th in the FT Global MBA ranking 2013, 95 per cent of last year’s graduating class had a job offer within 90 days of graduating. The median salary was $115,000, says Prof Kumar, while at Olin Business School at Washington University in St Louis, ranked 54th, the median salary in 2012 was $95,000.

But applications to business schools are still down across the board. Prof Davis-Blake says there is a growing bifurcation in the market, with one-year masters degrees, often in accounting, marketing or finance, proving more attractive than a two-year MBA. And those who do pursue an MBA are increasingly looking at part-time, executive or online options.

“People are thinking carefully about what it is going to take for them to give up their job for two years,” she says. “The two-year format is not as robust as it was.”

Following the success of the online MBA launched by the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina in July 2011, the past year has seen a flurry of similar technology­enhanced and online programmes, particularly from US schools.

Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon has recently relaunched its FlexMBA, which combines online learning with weekend teaching. “US students who want to do an MBA want to do so without leaving their job,” says Robert Dammon, Tepper dean.

He believes the classroom-only model is losing its appeal – “the ‘sage on the stage’ model doesn’t work as well as it used to” – and speculates schools could launch many different models for the MBA. He says: “[Students] could do the first year at their own pace and then come to campus for the second year.”

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