From where I sit - Mission creep tarnishes MBA

May 3, 2012

The MBA landscape in Germany has always been somewhat troubled. For a start, the degree was actually prohibited until 1990, and since then, the road has been a rapid but rocky one. Recently, articles in the media have been drawing public attention to the various oddly named MBA programmes that do not deliver or are contradictions in terms.

Writing in Der Spiegel, Barbel Schwertfeger has criticised Germany for being "the land of specialised MBAs". She is not alone in arguing that the whole point of an MBA is to provide a general view of business for those who have practical business experience but lack a knowledge of the theory, or for those who have previously studied in other fields. For this reason, Michael Frenkel, dean of the WHU-Otto Beishiem School of Management, considers qualifications such as an MBA in Real Estate or in Event Management to be "one-colour zebras". And that's not to mention the MBA in Advanced Management or, in a redundant piece of terminology, an MBA in Business Administration.

The problem, some believe, is the "inflationary use of the MBA title", which has expanded into all manner of disciplines, shapes and forms. The fault arguably lies not just with the universities themselves, but also with the subordinate bodies that certify and sign off inappropriate and weak programmes. Furthermore, there is no real consensus about what an MBA qualification should entail and comprise.

There are thus allegations that many MBAs are little more than the traditional business degree, Diplom Kaufmann, rebranded with a different name. And it is true that in Germany, as it is in many other countries, some MBAs really do just involve the teaching staff offering their first- or second-level courses once again, possibly spiced up with some new case studies.

That MBAs can be quite lucrative creates the temptation to offer courses with this label, even though they would more realistically and fairly be described and run as non-degree crash courses in business or professional development programmes. When the calibre of the course or of the students is not of master's level, there is a serious academic problem.

There have been some genuine MBA horror stories in Germany. One programme offered in Stuttgart received millions of euros in funding but nevertheless eventually went bust as a consequence of "management errors". In Berlin, another school set out to be "the Harvard on the Spree", but after 10 years, it was still not allowed to grant doctoral degrees.

Of course, not everything is bad. German institutions do deliver some rigorous and well-respected MBAs, with that offered by the Mannheim Business School being generally regarded as an impressive case in point. And high-ranking administrators such as Andreas Pinkwart, rector of the HHL-Leipzig Graduate School of Management, argue that the degree has a bright future. After all, Germany is the economic powerhouse of Europe and can attract both good academics and students. Furthermore, big business is not short of money to support the right programmes.

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