Education is the real deal

Katie Best calls for business school rankings that measure pedagogic merit, not simply cash and corporate power

March 17, 2011

My understanding is that business education is supposed to transform us. If teachers or lecturers cannot catalyse such a transformation in their business students, they are in the wrong profession; likewise for business schools. I carried this belief with me into my role as director of MBA programmes at BPP Business School, which I took up two years ago.

But at the first deans and directors conference I attended, I was quite unprepared for what I found. According to other MBA directors, I was chasing the wrong holy grail. Forget the educational merit of what you are doing (or shelve it, at least), I was told; you should be looking to enter the MBA rankings.

There are many such rankings, including the ones provided by the Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes and BusinessWeek. They focus, in varying degrees, on the return on investment after students graduate from business school and their subsequent career prospects - playing to the typical interests of their readerships by suggesting that money and corporate power are the primary aims of all MBA alumni.

The rankings are taken very seriously by students, recruiters and, most worryingly, business schools themselves, some of which can be criticised for chasing league table positions instead of educating.

I am not deluded: I am constantly surrounded by MBA students and alumni and I know that they are, on the whole, financially motivated and career-minded. It would be wrong for rankings to ignore this. But I also know from talking to prospective and current students that money and power are not the only things they want; they want to learn and change as people, too.

They also want to know what they will be doing during their studies. Will their course be interesting, demanding, useful? Will they be different as a result? There are no rankings that they can turn to in order to find out.

While most want large salaries out of their MBAs, higher wages should come about as a result of the fundamental change in the students over the course of their programmes, not just because they have the brand name of a highly ranked business school on their CVs.

In fact, enormous salaries are not important at all for some MBA students. Across business schools, we see growing numbers of applicants from not-for-profit, governmental and socially responsible organisations. They are more interested in the value they can add to the sector they care about than their own salary slips.

Likewise, almost all the students taking MBAs are interested in good career prospects, save the entrepreneurs looking to forge their own paths. But when recruiters are asked to take part in compiling the rankings, and then use them as a measure of who to recruit, a vicious circle forms that is hard to break and which reduces the validity of the rankings in question.

Additionally, when employers pay for MBAs or when entrepreneurs pay for themselves, they are more interested in whether the programmes will impart something of value than in whether they will open doors to new employment opportunities.

None of this is to say that those business schools that feature highly on the current rankings would not do so on a league table of educational quality. Many schools provide exceptional learning experiences. But it would be useful to have such a measure available to students and to see schools begin to pay attention to it, rather than chasing after other rankings.

Admittedly, measuring educational success is more difficult than measuring salaries, but this is hardly a reason not to try. One way forward might be to survey students before, during and after their programmes to see how they think they have changed. These findings could be triangulated with similar surveys filled in by the managers of part-time students to test for reliability.

If the Financial Times can bring in KPMG to audit its rankings, as it now does, then surely the money is available to come up with a survey that can accurately measure the educational value of MBA programmes in a way that would help our students to make informed choices.

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