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Henley Management College is doing what it does best. After years of emulating a university business school, it is realigning its focus on management, and planning to deliver the kind of programmes companies need, rather than the kind of esoteric courses that academics want to teach.

The new broom sweeping in the changes is Chris Bones, who formerly bore the somewhat onerous title of Group Organisation, Effectiveness and Development Director for Cadbury Schweppes. These days he is simply Henley principal.

Following the refocus, Henley has “a much more distinctive voice,” says Mr Bones. “We have interesting things to say in the language that managers talk.”

Mr Bones’ appointment in January this year comes at a time when business schools generally are questioning what they teach and the way they teach it. Many are facing an uphill struggle to persuade faculty that students need management skills as well as academic knowledge.

Mr Bones did not stand on ceremony when implementing his reorganisation. By June he had thrown out the academic silos of marketing, finance or accounting, and brought in five new academic groupings based on five sets of issues: reputation, leadership and change, growth and innovation, products and processes and management learning.

At the heart of Henley’s business are two types of programmes: short executive programmes which account for 35 per cent of the £22m a year business, and MBA programmes, the lion’s share of which are distance learning programmes. Indeed with nearly 6,000 students on its distance learning programme at any one time, Mr Bones believes that Henley is the third largest awarder of MBA degrees in the world.

The distance learning MBA is going down well in the US, where Henley is accredited by the AACSB, the American accreditation body. US distance learning suppliers, such as Cardean Learning Group (formerly UNext) and the University of Phoenix have no AACSB accreditation.

Although distance learning MBAs and executive short courses may seem poles apart, the thing that underlies all Henley’s programmes are the type of people who study on them. The school caters for older managers: the average age of students on its MBA degrees is 35; the average age of those on its full-time MBA programme is 38.

“They’re buying it [the MBA] to break through their own companies’ career development process,” says Mr Bones. “We don’t see them as people looking for an immediate return.”

Jane McKenzie, head of Henley’s modular [executive] MBA says that by the end of the first year of the modular and evening programmes between 50 and 60 per cent of the managers have changed jobs (though not necessarily companies) or expanded their responsibilities. By the end of the second year the majority of the students have moved on professionally.

Looking for promotion in their existing company is no motivation for those studying on the boutique full time MBA programme – the programme has up to 30 students each year.

One student on this year’s full-time programme is 43-year old Clive Gardiner, a former recording artist and music executive. For him the MBA is a way of switching careers.

The degree, he says, gives his career “a more rounded story . . . you can supplement and contextualise what you’ve done before”.

Gerard Doyle, 34, has just finished the full-time degree and says he was attracted by Henley’s practical application. In particular he enjoyed being taught by practitioners and not academics. During the programme he did four overseas trips, sandwiched between the four blocks of classes, each four weeks in length, which are the core of the Henley full-time MBA. Though Henley has traditionally been viewed as a college with little depth of research, academic dean Jean-Noël Ezingeard says that is a view he is trying to change, particularly among potential faculty.

He is hoping to attract good executive teachers with a strong research agenda.

“We’re starting to attract the right sort of people,” he says.

Now he believes the school has to focus on attracting non-British faculty, particularly given that Henley has so many distance learning students outside the UK – Henley operates in 110 countries. At the moment just nine of the 48 full-time faculty at Henley are international (non-British).

Prof Ezingeard believes the re-organisation of departments was just what the school needed. “People were ready for change. People wanted change. People asked to be engaged with a vision. It was easier than I thought it would be.”

At 60 years old this year, Henley Management College has seen many changes. Only time will tell if this one is here to last.

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