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Business school campuses are mushrooming around the world like the foreign subsidiaries of multinational companies. For the most part these campuses seek to replicate the activities that the parent undertakes at home.
Initially, they were in the form of US schools setting up campuses in Europe. They offered a mixture of degree and executive education programmes and foreign exchanges that broadened the market and opportunities for the school’s existing courses and students. Increasingly, they have involved US and European schools in the Middle East and east Asia.
What is the rationale for this? The obvious answer is that schools with strong products and brand names want to export their offerings to other parts of the world. If it is costly for students to come from those locations, schools should expand there instead. But that is where the underlying premise is questionable, for two reasons.
First, while there is clearly a transaction cost in students moving overseas, there are large offsetting advantages. An important benefit that students derive from business school is experiencing another culture at first hand and interacting with students from diverse national and professional backgrounds.
At Oxford there are typically around 50 nationalities on the MBA programme and students value the rich cultural environment in which they study. Multiple campuses that geographically segment students diminish this experience.
Second, while many students welcome the opportunity to spend extended periods of time abroad, faculty for the most part do not. What is initially seen as a novelty rapidly becomes a burden, as the obligation to service overseas campuses imposes requirements on faculty to be away from their colleagues and families.
To the extent that this is overcome by relying on local rather than parent-school faculty, then problems of integration and consistency of standards arise that even the most advanced forms of communication cannot fully resolve.
The real benefit that business schools can derive from a strong presence overseas is precisely the opposite of this traditional argument of exporting expertise. It is to learn from the rest of the world about the cultural and social context in which business is done and to make students more aware of these differences.
One of the criticisms that can justifiably be levelled against the standard business school curriculum is that it presumes a single universal best way of doing business. Recent experience should have alerted us to the inadequacies of this prescriptive approach to business education.
There is a substantial research as well as teaching agenda still in its infancy on how businesses should be adapted to the national and local context in which they operate. If an overseas presence encourages the collaborative research that is required to address these issues and provides the vehicle through which that knowledge can be disseminated, then it can make a real contribution to the success of business schools and to the businesses with which they are associated.
Saïd Business School, Oxford, is doing this through establishing activities in different locations (such as China and India) that are focused on research and executive education. We are undertaking collaborative research that is concerned with learning from the success of business in different parts of the world, understanding the differences and addressing the policy questions that business confronts.
The results of this research are communicated to practitioners and policymakers through executive education programmes in these overseas locations and to the student body in their degree programmes in Oxford. That way we are able to create a truly global business school that is both informed by international knowledge and influential on business practice, while retaining the international diversity of our own student body.
Colin Mayer is the Peter Moores dean of Saïd Business School, University of Oxford