School profile: Breaking with the past

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MBA’s “must dirty their hands first to survive in a challenging market environment” is how Ishrat Hussain, dean of Pakistan’s first business school – the Institute of Business Administration (IBA) at Karachi University puts across his vision for the future of his ideal students.

Mr Hussain, a widely respected international economist and former two-term governor of Pakistan’s central bank, is now grappling with the challenges of sending some of his 150 students who graduate each year with an MBA degree, into a tough economic environment which has scaled back opportunities in recent years.

More vitally, he must contend with the effects of a tough security environment in a country at the centre of the global fight against Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants. One consequence of this has been the reluctance of foreign nationals to travel to Karachi for stints as visiting faculty members at an otherwise respected business school established in 1955 with support from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in the US.

Unlike the IBA’s initial days when US-based faculty members came to help initiate its first business courses, western nationals today remain largely averse to travelling to Pakistan. “This is a big dilemma or challenge that this is Pakistan’s first business school and I can’t get faculty from outside the country” says Mr Hussain.

Still, he is not deterred from pushing ahead with fundamental changes. Mr Hussain’s answer to the challenge of revamping IBA’s programme lies in part in “creating excellence in a way that new MBA students are now typically armed with at least two years of experience” before entering the programme, in a sharp break from the past when many fresh graduates were inducted. The idea of “dirtying your hands” however is not just about wanting aspiring MBAs to be armed with prior experience.

The same logic is now applied to the way faculty members progress in their careers. One recently introduced idea has been to expose IBA faculty to overseas business schools with the initiative of sending two faculty members every semester on attachment to the business school at the National University of Singapore “for joint projects, joint case studies and joint research”. Another initiative encourages graduates of high merit to embark on PhD programmes in preparation to become future leaders in academia.

“I have said that if someone gets admission to one of the world’s top 50 business schools, they will be provided with a four-year scholarship and they will then spend five years as a faculty member with us” says Mr Hussain, pointing out what he believes is an important initiative to strengthen the IBA’s faculty.

Among Pakistan’s business leaders, notably in Karachi, the country’s main business centre, the IBA’s revamp has been welcomed by many. Increasing numbers of corporate leaders recognise the importance of inducting home-grown graduates able to deal with the pitfalls of their domestic environment.

“I can induct someone from the world’s top business school. The question however is two fold; one, will someone who is a Harvard graduate want to work in Pakistan and two, will they be the right sort of candidate for the job?” asks the chairman of a large Pakistani business group. “Unlike a Harvard graduate who demands several thousand dollars in monthly salary, I think its better for me to induct an IBA graduate for less than a thousand dollars a month”.

However, not everyone agrees with the need for new MBA entrants to gain professional experience, especially as opportunities for fresh graduates remain increasingly tight. “Coming to IBA was dream come true” says Khadeeja Arshad, an IBA undergraduate student. “But the question is, will I find a job right after my BBA and how long will it take for me to get a job so that I gain the right kind of work experience”.

But Mr Hussain insists, that finding experienced new entrants is “part of an important process where you have to have people who are experienced and have learnt to think quickly on their feet”.

As part of the changing MBA format, Mr Hussain has also brought in previously untried ideas, such as tailoring the degree programme to serve not only profit-oriented private businesses but also the public sector and even non-profit organisations “because that is the way forward and that is how the world is shaping up”.

In addition to the challenges surrounding Pakistan, many analysts warn, business conditions will remain weak in the coming year due to the recent financial crisis in Dubai. This is especially difficult for newly emerging MBAs, as many past graduates saw Dubai as either their immediate destination for their first jobs, or a destination of choice after a few years of experience in Pakistan. For many Pakistanis, faced with the difficulty of getting work visas especially in the western world, Dubai often provided the best venue for quick processing of visa requests.

But, some employers believe the fallout from Dubai’s financial conditions or Pakistan’s own economic direction, are no more than temporary setbacks.

“In the long run, crises are often followed by an eventual period of stability. Economic conditions will not remain depressed for ever. Quality education must eventually pay off some day” says the chairman of the Pakistani business group whose first priority in his own words “remains only to consider home-grown MBAs like those from IBA as my first choice”.

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