Profits of being top of the table

Ranking Business Schools
January 26, 2007

Business schools operate as one of the frontier posts of the academic world, mediating between differing values, conceptions of knowledge and bases for action. Unsurprisingly, many are very unsure of their own position and status, often having equivocal relationships with both the academic community and the business community.

Such a position explains many aspects of business school life: their interest in more explicitly legitimate bodies of knowledge; an exaggerated fascination with research methodology rather than research itself; an overemphasis on the prestige of publication outlets; and so on. It also provides one of the reasons for their interest in public rankings and accreditations. For interested they indeed are.

Linda Wedlin provides an insight into the configurations of pressures that mobilise and sustain such rankings in Europe. The media is looking for sales and new customers among the upwardly mobile students of such institutions. BusinessWeek 's MBA rankings issue is said to be the top seller of the year, and the Financial Times has an interest in encouraging sales on the otherwise lower sales day of Monday by offering coverage of business education. European business schools have gained enormously in international standing by doing well in such rankings, especially the more global ones published in the Financial Times . Not least in significance, students and potential students have gained some insights into an otherwise obscure and rather secretive world.

MBA programmes can offer three main advantages to their students: new knowledge, membership of elite networks and an elevated positioning in international managerial labour markets. But different schools score very differently on these dimensions. Once, the possibility of conveying new knowledge was the preserve of a few. For modern financial understandings, it was necessary to go to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or Rochester, Chicago, Wharton or a few other business schools. No longer.

That knowledge has been diffused and is now available at even the lowliest of institutions. Knowledge is no longer a key differentiator.

So now networks and access to key managerial labour markets are crucial factors in differentiating schools. In the language of Fred Hirsch, they both have strong elements of positional goods. The market benefits of an MBA are available only at relatively few institutions. Some notion of ranking, therefore, emerges very readily in the current business school world.

This is why a school such as Chicago, whose research and Nobel prizewinners have changed the world of business, is ranked similarly to the London Business School, an institution that is a knowledge disseminator rather than a knowledge creator. For it is likely that London holds a more prominent position in the European managerial labour market than Chicago holds in the US one.

Unsurprisingly, there is evidence that such rankings drive behaviours. They are in part constitutive of what business schools are in the process of becoming - for better or for worse. Wedlin is good at discussing this, highlighting how the rankings have been implicated in the creation of the conception of the modern European business school and the identity of many specific institutions.

At the HEC, the top French school, which is striving for wider international recognition, ranking reports fill almost every notice board: you can't help but know that this means a lot to them. Other schools give a bonus or a prize for publications included in the rankings. In the US, there is statistical evidence that the hiring and firing of deans is related to ranking performance.

Although Wedlin's study certainly opens up a fascinating analysis of these processes, it suffers from being too minimal a development of a good doctoral thesis. To really cast light on the tensions at work would require a much deeper series of studies of institutional responses and a more detailed exploration of the roles played by the media. It would also be worthwhile investigating the parallel processes of accreditation, something of questionable value in the business school area but an activity that certainly seems to generate good cash flows for those who have the audacity to do it.

Anthony Hopwood was formerly dean of the Said Business School, Oxford University.

Ranking Business Schools: Forming Fields, Identities and Boundaries in International Management Education

Author - Linda Wedlin
Publisher - Edward Elgar
Pages - 213
Price - £52.00
ISBN - 1 84542 515 4

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