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When Desautels Faculty of Management announced proposals to become self-funding and increase its fees by thousands of dollars, there was a predictable furore.

Questions were asked in Quebec’s National Assembly, critical articles appeared in newspapers and the province’s government said that if the school went ahead with its plans, it would lose its subsidy and be financially penalised. But Desautels refused to be dissuaded and last year put up its fees from as low as C$1,700 ($1,710) a year for Quebec residents to C$29,500. The decision was made after much deliberation, says Peter Todd, the dean. “We could no longer compete,” he adds.

The school was effectively running an MBA programme on roughly C$12,000 per student when Canadian competitors were spending up to C$35,000. “No one was interested in running a mediocre MBA programme,” he adds. “[We said] we either do this [raise fees] or consider exiting the business. You cannot sustain it at the level and quality that we were. It was an up-or-out decision.”

So did the fee rise dissuade MBA students from applying? Although the current crop of students is the first to pay the higher fees, Prof Todd is quietly confident. Desautels has the same number of MBA students – about 60 – as it did last year and, he claims, the demographic profile and quality are the same. However, he has noticed that students appear to be more serious about their studies.

The idea, says the dean, is to produce a world-class MBA programme. “We are now in a great position to reinvest, to continue to make the programme better and to get the right students,” he says.

Desautels has hired close to 40 additional professors – increasing its faculty by 50 per cent. There has also been significant investment in the careers service.

The MBA curriculum has also come under scrutiny. “The MBA was our weak point – there was not enough innovation and so it was clear it was one of the things that just had to change,” says Prof Todd. A revamped curriculum with a shorter, intensive core was unveiled in 2008. The core now takes a semester to complete, allowing students a second semester to specialise and a third to engage in a post-experience option. However, Desautels remains wedded to its two-year programme. “You have to give students some time to absorb the experience,” says the dean.

Fine-tuning of the curriculum continues – building international components into the programme, for example. Prof Todd is also eager to find more ways to embed real experience into the way the MBA programme is taught, as well as integrating research into the class.

As well as the full-time programme and law and medicine MBAs, the part-time MBA, which was suspended, will be relaunched this year as a “professional MBA”. An executive MBA is offered in partnership with HEC Montreal, and the school runs a global masters in management programme co-founded by Henry Mintzberg, the academic and author. Potential future programmes include a masters in finance and a research-orientated MSc to act as a bridge to the PhD course.

Prof Todd acknowledges that a big challenge facing the school is growing revenue from executive education, currently about C$4m. He would like to see that increase to C$15m. Desautels is in a small market for executive education – low cost, low fee – and in the past has moved fairly conservatively. The school was simply not in any position to make such investments, he says. But with the increased fees, ambition has soared. “We have to move to an international platform to boost revenue, and we are looking at ways of doing this,” he says.

And what of the government’s threat of a financial penalty? “At this point we have not seen anything,” says the dean. “We continue to talk to the government and we have [received] great support from the business community and an unequivocal commitment from the university.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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