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While not all innovators of groundbreaking technologies and businesses are MBA graduates, many MBAs do become entrepreneurs, creating jobs and wealth for society. Others return to corporate jobs and play crucial innovation roles in companies. Either way, these individuals are vital to the economy.
The decline in MBA applications (GMAC survey) should worry both business schools, from a revenue perspective, and the global brands that recruit graduates from leading schools as future leaders.
People understandably feel less confident about leaving a job and making a big investment in an MBA when the economy is suffering. However, MBAs provide a fast-track, structured route to gaining business knowledge; you may learn in 15 months what might take 15 years to learn in a job. If the number of people taking MBAs continues to fall significantly, more will instead follow the corporate route of learning at work, which is haphazard, unstructured and much slower.
Individuals who are willing to step away from well-paid jobs and invest in MBAs are typically ambitious risk-takers and are willing to put themselves on the line for a bigger return in the future. Going through this experience is itself good practice for future investment decisions – running profit and loss, assessing costs, sales and investment risk/return trade-off. Employees who are learning in the workplace do not take the same risks and are unlikely to push themselves far out of their comfort zone.
MBA graduates have a deep, structured understanding of business problems. If MBA application numbers decline because of a lack of confidence in the job market, ultimately the ability to create and deliver viable new products and businesses will plummet because there is a shortage of individuals with this in-depth knowledge of business problems.
There will be fewer managers who can support the challenges facing business in a rapidly evolving global market. A good MBA equips you with the foresight to understand what may happen in the next five years. MBA graduates understand that every business is a technology business and that customer data are the most valuable asset to an operation. The MBA strengthens understanding of the relationship between information technology and business and shows how to use data to drive strategy decisions and success.
We would not wish to return to the dark, notorious days where the UK was great at generating ideas and technology, but poor management saw it lose entire industries to overseas competition with the associated consequences in unemployment, social unrest and loss of competitiveness.
Business schools can do more to stimulate full-time MBA applications to ensure they continue to fill the economy with visionary people.
MBA programmes have long been considered lucrative cash cows for the schools, which fell over each other in the rush to provide the MBA name badge over the Diploma in Management Studies and other similar management qualifications. Perhaps it is time that schools structured their fees in the context of what the economy can bear?
Bursaries are also crucial during any economic downturn. Schools could better promote the full portfolio of bursaries available and introduce innovative ways to deliver them. For example, they could refund the fees for the top 10 graduates at the end of each course. This would encourage applications from the most capable candidates and promote healthy competition.
Faculties could work with employers to identify skills gaps, then tailor courses that develop specific jobs and enable individuals to go through a rapid and intense learning experience that produces a lasting change in the manager while still employed. Schools could also be more proactive with their alumni and implement referral schemes whereby alumni are encouraged by their alma mater to refer prospective candidates. Schools could also use social media and viral campaigns to attract candidates.
Over the past decades companies have come a long way in demonstrating good management skills thanks to the calibre of their MBA intake. In-house training does not provide the same breadth that a business school offers. Companies should voice their need for MBAs loudly and should work with recruiters and business schools to ensure that the decline in MBA applications is nothing more than a blip.
The author is president of Sainsbury Management Fellows, which awards MBA bursaries to engineers, and a visiting professor at UNIEI