Market shifts mean a bleak future for business schools

Ashridge leader notes waning student appetite for academic programmes. Hannah Fearn reports

November 18, 2010

Prestigious MBA courses and even entire business schools will close as universities struggle to carve out a future for business education, an expert in the field has predicted.

Kai Peters, chief executive of the Ashridge Business School, said the outlook for university business departments is bleak as student demand shifts away from academic programmes towards more practical studies.

Mr Peters also questioned the need for undergraduate business education in general, claiming it is better to begin with an arts, humanities or social science degree.

"Business at undergraduate level is too vocational. Higher education is about expanding the mind rather than being directly vocational," he said.

"Relating something about business to people who don't have any business experience is not sensible to my mind."

Mr Peters said central elements of academia, such as the need to publish research, meant that scholars are ill-placed to provide the business education that students want.

"In business you can be entirely divorced from the field of study in a way that I consider quite worrying. 'Publish or perish' becomes the motto that business schools work under and will continue to work under in any university setting, so there is a mismatch between the faculty and what the students and participants are looking for."

Although Mr Peters is now in charge of a private business school, he is a former director of MBA programmes at the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University.

He told Times Higher Education that recent research he had conducted suggested that studying under a leading business academic does not greatly benefit students.

Mr Peters asked MBA directors how much of their student syllabus was influenced by their own research, and found that the answer was less than 10 per cent. More than 90 per cent of teaching covers material common to all business students.

He said that the structure of business education in the UK could change dramatically over the next few years, with the less well-known university departments in the line of fire.

"Is a business school a professional school or is it an academic school? That's part of the whole debate," he said.

"The next two or three years are going to be exciting and formative in terms of what will happen.

"I still think there is going to be a place for the big brand players...but if you're a small (university) department I would be a bit concerned. They will start to realise that it's a competitive space and student demands are very high."

Mr Peters predicted that the evolution of the business school would result in "hybrid institutions" that do more to offer both academic study and workplace-centred expertise.

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