MBA goes global in bid to create the worldly wise

Overhaul aims to give students the flexibility needed in an ever-changing market. Hannah Fearn reports

March 24, 2011

A US business school is introducing modules taught overseas and is offering alumni the chance to return to study for free as part of an overhaul of its curriculum in the wake of the financial crisis.

Wharton Business School, part of the University of Pennsylvania, now flies students around the globe to take part in week-long modules introducing them to global business issues.

Its MBA curriculum offers students the chance to study healthcare in India and European finance in London, while closer to home, issues relating to technology and entrepreneurship are taught in San Francisco.

Modules are delivered by Wharton's own staff, academics from partner institutions around the world and experienced Wharton alumni now working in business.

In an interview with Times Higher Education, Thomas Robertson, dean of Wharton Business School, said reform had become a necessity.

"As the financial crisis came along, lecturers couldn't walk into the classroom and pull out lecture notes from the year before. A lot of change took place all by itself," he said. "We hadn't revised the curriculum in more than a decade, so it was time to look at it and think about it more fundamentally."

He said that the new curriculum was focused on providing students with skills that the school believes will be necessary to thrive in the new economic environment, as well as encouraging them to think about the social impact of their work.

Eight foreign modules, each up to a week in length, are being taught this year. These include a session in Brazil on energy and another on technology delivered in Israel.

"The course has to be germane to the market that you're operating in, so in London it's about European finance," Professor Robertson explained.

Above all, he argued, students must learn to be flexible.

"At least half of (our students) will work in industries that don't currently exist," he said.

"Twenty or 30 years ago the internet didn't exist, neither did social media, bioinformatics, sustainability or green products. We have to teach a culture of innovation and we have to teach the mentality that nothing's going to be the same."

All academic staff at the business school must now prepare at least two "pathways", or study routes, for students to choose from for each degree subject.

In future, the school will open its doors to alumni, allowing them to return to study short courses for free.

"When you talk to alumni 10 to 15 years out, they say they wish they'd had more in the way of (lessons on) leadership and communication, and how you deal with people," Professor Robertson said.

He added that he believed debates about the death of the MBA were mere "rhetoric" and said that he was confident about the future of both the US economy and business education.

"Any kind of disruption or downturn creates wonderful opportunities. There's a lot of wonderful hype right now about India and China, and the notion that China is the second most powerful economy in the world and will overtake the US within 20 years. Maybe it will, maybe not - probably not," he said.

hannah.fearn@tsleducation.com.

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