Schools say mea culpa as they cash in on MBAs

Applications rise as institutions vow to play their part in resolving the crisis. Hannah Fearn reports

September 17, 2009

They have been blamed by some for playing a part in the financial crisis, but business schools are now benefiting from it thanks to a surge in MBA applications.

With applicant numbers already on the rise, more than half the schools polled in a recent survey by the Association of MBAs predict further increases next year.

Universities are also moving to reassure students that they have learnt the lessons of the past and are part of the solution to the economic downturn, not the problem.

Business schools were accused of promoting greed and recklessness in the wake of the meltdown, and some academics can see merit in the criticisms.

Sean Rickard, director of the full-time MBA programme at Cranfield University, said that many UK and US business schools had accepted young, green candidates for finance-focused MBAs.

"They have been taking on relatively young, inexperienced people and focusing them very hard on the financial sector," he said.

"Perhaps in doing that, schools have forgotten about some of the more traditional MBA attributes."

He added that at Cranfield the average age of MBA students was 33, and its programme was focused on general management, including modules on ethics and governance.

Stefan Szymanski, outgoing director of the MBA programme at Cass Business School, City University London, also admitted that there had been problems.

He said: "Business schools' silo mentality has inhibited the interdisciplinary insights managers need."

But Professor Szymanski added that they had been quick to respond to the crisis.

"Talking to lecturers, there isn't a single one I know who hasn't made the crisis more or less the focal point of their teaching," he said.

"Business schools are excellent places to debate the causes of what happened and the policies required to avoid past mistakes."

He added that the idea that the response to the crisis should be less education was "wrong-headed".

"Whether or not we were part of the problem, we have to be part of the solution," he said.

A number of universities and business schools have redoubled their marketing efforts to take advantage of the growth in MBA applicants, which has been attributed in part to recently laid-off workers looking to invest their redundancy money in a manner that will stand them in good stead when the economy picks up.

Durham University is one of the institutions undertaking research to see what changes it could make to become more attractive to prospective business students.

It is promoting the social value of its MBA and has employed public relations company NHPR to spearhead a marketing campaign.

Tina Vifor, marketing manager at the Association of MBAs, said universities had to prove themselves to new students.

She said: "Just because interest in the MBA has gone up doesn't mean interest in your university has, so that is where the marketing comes in."

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