Is a modern MBA worth it?

The MBA is no longer a qualification with ‘near mythical status’ offered by only a handful of elite academic institutions – so does it still have value? asks Fran Johnson

January 7, 2018
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When interviewing candidates for our MBA programme, I often ask them: “How many MBAs does an organisation need to hire each year?” Estimates range from a modest 10 to a frankly optimistic 1,000.

My answer to that question, however, is “none”. No organisation needs to hire “an MBA”. But it will need to hire an experienced finance manager, operations director, business development lead or telecoms consultant.

When I started work nearly 30 years ago, a colleague was studying for her MBA. Then, it was a qualification with near mythical status, offered by only a handful of elite academic institutions – success would guarantee my colleague a six-figure salary in any City-based organisation.

Look at today’s market, however, and there are hundreds of providers of MBAs ranging in duration from four weeks to two years. Of the thousands of students completing an MBA globally each year, many do so straight from university, having had no practical experience.

So in this context, I think it is fair (and sensible) for both students and employers to challenge the value and relevance of today’s MBA.

Obviously, as an employee and alumna of Alliance Manchester Business School, it would be odd if I didn’t think there was real value in the qualification – especially if gained from a recognised and accredited programme. However, I do think that getting best value depends on recognising, as either candidate or employer, what you need from an MBA.

In some global markets – India, for example – an MBA is now often a prerequisite for even entry-level roles. In other sectors, such as UK manufacturing, an MBA can give you an edge, but it’s usually a candidate’s work experience that will get them the interview.

The digital age has also shaken up the market, with a number of today’s MBAs looking to leverage the skills learned within a course to develop and launch their ideas and run with them.

So while the short answer to the question posed by this article is still “yes”, it’s only a “yes” if the MBA programme understands the current business climate and is careful to accept only candidates who will be able to gain real value from the experience.

At the Alliance Manchester Business School, we work to achieve this by inviting applications only from students with significant work experience, and then working with them to develop and maintain strong, practical relationships with businesses, mentors and potential funders throughout our course. This “Manchester Method” (of which we as a business school are very proud) is based on practical learning, so while our classrooms provide a strong theoretical basis for our MBA, this is just a starting point.

For any MBA programme, collaboration with businesses is key. Every school needs to keep in close contact with organisations to understand their changing needs and outlooks. It might be through networking events, round tables, speaker events or simply catching up over the phone or for a meeting. A business school is only as strong as the opportunities it can provide for its students both within learning and in the wider world after graduation.

There’s no doubting that the merits of an MBA are under scrutiny – but they should be, as should every other course offered by universities. Constant reflection, analysis and monitoring are needed to maintain the highest levels of education, and this is no time for institutions to rest on their laurels.

Business schools have been offering successful MBA courses for a century. With strong networks, a global outlook and a versatile, practical learning environment, I’m sure that they’ll still be providing students with the skills to excel in business for some time to come yet.

Fran Johnson is associate director of MBA programmes at Alliance Manchester Business School.

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