Time for a change

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Towards the end of last year, I asked a man who works closely with business schools how he would characterise their attitude over the past year. He responded instantly: as a bunch of ostriches with their heads in the sand. He then paused for a moment, and then added: “With a herd of buffalo heading towards them.”

Cynical he may be, but he does have a point. After a year of economic turmoil and academic trauma, most business schools seem to have become paralysed.

There have been some changes to the curriculum to reflect growing concerns about unethical behaviour, and to beef up technical courses in subjects such as risk management and financial derivatives.

On top of that, some individual professors and deans have proposed that business education needs to more rigorously codified or professionalised, to bring it into line with sectors such as medicine and law – Rakesh Khurana at Harvard and Frank Brown at Insead have been at the forefront of this movement. Spearheaded by one Harvard graduate, thousands of MBA students around the world have signed an oath to proclaim that they will behave ethically, a move that has been greeted with enthusiasm by some and hoots of derision by others.

But deep down, what has really changed? As investment bankers begin hiring again this summer, will we see MBA graduates eschewing these jobs, or will they take the banker’s shilling just like their predecessors?

For although business school professors like to spend years tinkering with the curriculum, most seem unable to contemplate the idea of changing the structure of their programmes, especially in the US, where the two-year MBA dominates the market.

This two-year programme brings with it one inherent problem: debt. Not only are there tuition fees to pay but MBA students have to live for two years without income. According to Harvard Business School, which has one of the world’s most generous scholarship schemes for its students, those who graduated with a Harvard MBA in 2009 were in debt to the tune, on average, of almost $77,000. Graduates from top schools with fewer resources faced even greater debts.

This then begs the question: who would want to do this? One answer is that thousands of managers around the world vie for these coveted qualifications every year. But the statistics show that they are a self-selecting group.

To begin with, they are men. A cursory glance over the statistics for the top business schools shows that 60 per cent or more of the admitted class are male. At London Business School, the top two-year programme, the figure is a whopping 73 per cent.

Second, they are people who are prepared to take the risk of investing two years out of their lives without the guarantee of a high-paying job at the end of it, as this year’s graduates found out.

And even for those who are not high risk-taking males, whatever their good intentions, debt is a highly persuasive ingredient in the decision-making process when looking for a job. It is a brave person who turns down a lucrative banking job to work for a not-for-profit organisation if they owe almost $90,000.

Those who run one-year MBA programmes may be feeling smug at this point. Yes, they are much better value for money, but they present many of the same problems and graduate very similar people. Looking at the typical profile of an MBA student, it is easy to see why this privileged group has gained the image of being arrogant and aggressive alpha males. And bearing all these factors in mind, it is easy to see why MBA students have been blamed for the current economic crisis.

None of which is particularly helpful if the role of business schools is to help create and run more successful businesses. In order to achieve this, there are several questions that business schools must answer.

First, how can they attract a wide range of students from different backgrounds on to their programmes? Second, how can they help promote gender diversity in the boardroom? And third, how can they teach managers what they need to know at the point when they need to know it?

If business schools are not prepared to change of their own accord, then perhaps they will be forced to do so by their students. For as the cost of studying for MBAs goes up, the salary premium they offer decreases. Data collected by the Financial Times for its MBA rankings over the past decade show that there has been a steady decrease in the salary increases reported over the past 10 years.

In the FT rankings of 2001, alumni from eight of the top 10 US programmes reported that their salaries had more than tripled in the five years from starting the programme. One, Columbia, reported salary increases of more than 250 per cent over the period.

In this year’s rankings, those salary increases have halved, with Columbia again reporting the highest increases of just 121 per cent. In the end, students may just decide to vote with their feet.

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