September 19, 2011 12:48 am

Ireland: lessons to learn

Ireland’s dramatic plunge from best in class to one of the eurozone’s most delinquent economies has unleashed a fierce domestic debate about what role private business should play in society.

Nowhere is this more heated than in Ireland’s elite business schools, which once championed the country’s bucca-neering capitalist class but are now engaged in a bout of soul searching.

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Michael Flynn, director of the MBA programme at Trinity College Dublin, the country’s oldest and best-known university, says in the public mind business schools are seen as having been partly responsible for the financial crisis, along with the bankers, developers and inept regulators.

The charge, he believes, is misplaced. But he concedes the perception is that business schools have been turning out “people with a narrow sense of duty, a really narrow sense of responsibility and a narrow sense of what leadership is. Selfish, greedy – all these words are used.”

Flynn welcomes the current debate and believes it should, in the long run, play to Trinity’s strengths.

“Trinity has always had a focus on the responsibility elements of business leadership as opposed to just looking at leadership in terms of creating value or wealth for a very narrowly defined range of stakeholders, normally shareholders,” he says.

“Of course profit is at the centre of the focus of our MBA programme, but we believe there are other things that are important too.”

But Patrick T. Gibbons, acting dean at the Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School at University College Dublin, is more pessimistic. The reputational damage inflicted on Ireland by its mishandling of the crisis, he believes, has tarnished the brand of Irish business schools and made it harder to attract quality foreign students.

“Undoubtedly we have lessons to learn on how we have educated people,” he says.

It is true that both schools slipped in the rankings with the onset of the eurozone debt crisis, but Flynn says this would apply to all countries on the eurozone periphery.

“There are a number of different metrics – research output, our staff-to-student ratios. With hardship on the public purse, some of those metrics have suffered. But if you look at the other countries, a number of European countries, this is a pattern emerging everywhere,” he says.

If Smurfit reports more difficulty attracting foreign students, it is not all gloom. The flipside is that both schools have been inundated with Irish applications as a direct consequence of the domestic recession.

“My impression is that people are much more focused on job security, and an MBA adds to security. In a buoyant economy you might not have gone to university at all, or you might have got an undergraduate degree and thought you’re on a pretty good track and there are plenty of job offers out there, [so] who needs an MBA?” says Flynn.

But today’s market has changed dramatically. The typical MBA intake includes Irish lawyers and engineers who have lost their jobs in the property crash and are now using their redundancy to gain additional skills in the hope of improving their future employment prospects.

Trinity has always encouraged applications from an older age group than many other business schools. The average age is now about 34. But Smurfit also reports that its intake is getting older, reflecting what is happening in the labour market.

“These are people who would have skipped our masters programme four or five years ago. They would have gone straight from being an undergraduate into a job at 21 or 22. Now, six years later, they’re saying they’ve got to get an MBA,” says Prof Gibbons.

Both schools offer one-year full-time and two-year part-time MBA courses. In addition, there is a range of MSc programmes and executive education courses.

Some of the courses have been specially designed for this changed business backdrop. Trinity, for example, has an MSc for “pre-experience” non-business graduates. “We’re answering the needs of society,” says Flynn.

For the aspirant MBA, the big question is what the qualification will do to improve their chances of a getting a job in today’s uncertain world.

“Students are looking for very specific answers even before they sign up to the programme,” says Sean Murray, marketing director at Smurfit.

“They want to know how many people from last year’s course are in jobs. Where are they working? How long did it take them to get a job?” he says. And they’re not interested in any vague answers. They want to know chapter and verse.”

But Prof Gibbons says the whole notion of a career has changed. “You used to go into an organisation at 25 or 26 and then hoped to rise up the hierarchy. Those types of jobs are few and far between today,” he says.

He believes his current crop of MBA students will probably find jobs, but work conditions may vary widely.

“There are a lot of short-term contracts. People are getting paid less. There are internships. There might be part-time jobs as opposed to full-time jobs,” he says.

Both schools are adamant, however, that an MBA should prepare a candidate for the next financial crisis, not seek simply to analyse the last.

Says Trinity’s Flynn: “What we’re talking about here is the need for change management – that should be a major part of any MBA programme, and it is here.

“We look at change management through strategy, through facilitation of things like technology and again through all functions of management.

“The current global crisis is only one example of change. It can come from almost any source, including technology, social values, government regulation and environmental causes. It can be tectonic and disruptive or slow and incremental. Managers need to be ready for change in whatever form it comes.”

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