September 19, 2011 12:48 am

The sense of belonging: business schools and independence

Sometimes it is good to belong. And business schools are now discovering that belonging to a university has an awful lot going for it. Indeed, the drive towards standalone business schools, so prevalent two decades ago, is looking distinctly passé.

Of course, most business schools in countries such as the US and the UK are university departments. In Britain, Ashridge is arguably the only fully private top business school, following Henley’s merger with the University of Reading three years ago. Most people would also argue that London Business School is a standalone school, even though it is nominally part of the University of London and has long-standing links with University College London.

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IN Masters in Management

But what is most surprising about the world’s best masters in management programmes is that almost all of them are taught at standalone business schools. Indeed, of the top 10 programmes in the FT ranking, only one is taught at a business school that is attached to a university – Rotterdam School of Management at Erasmus University.

Is this is a problem? Potentially, yes, because the reason independent business schools are rapidly going out of fashion is that they no longer answer the needs of business. Management is increasingly seen as a subject that has to be applied to other disciplines, because that is where the demand is.

The need for this is obvious when dealing with a young entrepreneur who wants to set up a company and needs a product as well as business nous, or when a student wants to commercialise a piece of technology. But there are far more fundamental and widespread reasons for mixing business with other academic fields.

Business school professors would say the issue is complexity, which simply means that managers in the top companies – the ones that hire MiM students from the best business schools – have more on their plates these days.

As corporations strive to be global players, they need to understand the sociopolitical constraints of the markets they are targeting. This is particularly true in countries such as China or regions such as the Middle East, where western-style democracy is almost unheard of and there are entrenched cultural norms – and, of course, where the money is these days. How do you advertise luxury fashion brands, for example, in a region where women traditionally wear the burqa?

But demand is also growing for business students to learn more about technology, economics, demographics and anthropology, and for students in other disciplines – medicine, law or architecture – to learn about business. University-based business schools have access to professors who can teach such topics; standalone schools do not.

Of course, in many countries the reason for business schools to strive for independence from universities has always been to escape bureaucracy and to avoid becoming a cash cow, paying for the loss-making departments of modern languages and philosophy.

But elsewhere the business school landscape is completely different. For example, in France – which has 17 MiM programmes ranked by the FT, more than any other country – business is taught through the grandes écoles system, where the schools themselves have been funded and managed by local chambers of commerce, completely outside the traditional university system.

But not for much longer if Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, has his way. In a Soviet-style centralised government policy, he has decreed that universities and the grandes écoles must bury their differences and work together to develop centres of excellence in the various urban centres. And to accuse Sarkozy of near-dictatorship is perhaps a little unfair, as he is actually sweetening the deal with a huge amount of money – €7.7bn ($11.1bn).

The new research and education clusters, or “pôles”, are intended to become world-class centres of research, teaching and corporate investment. Not everyone in France is convinced – indeed, those business schools that will have to relocate to join one of the pôles are not pleased.

That said, schools such as HEC, EM Lyon and Grenoble have lost no time in doing deals with their neighbouring universities and colleges. Whether it is the higher ideal of improving education or the lowlier one of securing a slice of the cash that is driving the moves is difficult to tell. But given that all three of those schools are in the top 10 in the FT MiM ranking this year, perhaps the complexion of MiM degrees will change after all.

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