So what is the value of that expensive MBA?

The business world wants clear thinkers with good quality degrees in any discipline so what’s the point of university business schools, asks business and economics professor Tony Dundon

Tue, May 6, 2014, 02:00

Ever wondered what university business schools do? It seems many academics and business leaders wonder the same. Harvard business school professor (and Harvard college dean from July 2014) Rakesh Khurana suggests business schools “face a crisis of irrelevance”. He says there is a growing lack of clarity as to “what an MBA consists of anymore”. Many people spend a fortune purchasing the MBA credential, but in the process they “don’t really learn a lot”.

The late Prof Sumantra Ghoshal of the London Business School was more forthright, saying university business schools have espoused “bad” theories that strike at the heart of the on-going financial crisis. Executives from Enron to Lehman Brothers’ were all MBA trained.

The crisis of irrelevance and “bad theory” has more to do with narrow training than academic uselessness. It is not hard to see why the world finds the obscurity of philosophical abstraction pointless. Studying things like post-structural interpretations of 18th-century poetry as a form of accountancy management is, to be sure, off the wall. But that sort of abstraction is rare. Much more serious is the opposite end of the spectrum – the narrow training rather than research-led scholarship.

The typical business student rarely gets to grips with things like the working conditions for workers living in factory dormitories to make our smartphones. Or that the quest for a modern, agile enterprise can mean shifting risk from owner to customer, or even onto the general public. If corporate responsibility is taught at all on a commerce degree, it’s usually just a minor or elective module. Even then, fundamental issues rarely re-surface across curricula.

Far too many business degree modules lack intellectual anchor points in robust social science. Many business-school missions seek to churn-out boardroom-ready graduates who will be “future leaders”. These are not neutral slogans but underwrite a political ideology of market populism. There is a discourse across business education that we all exist in an economy, rather than the more affable idea of contributing to a community or society. University education should be the start of a person’s journey in adulthood promoting understanding and civic engagement; not prescriptive how to be a fully-fledged and suited CEO.

There is no evidence whatsoever to prove a business degree will make someone a good leader or manager. If you are sick you want to be seen by a competent doctor who studied medicine. If I travel over a bridge I want it designed by an engineer who knows how it will withstand traffic weight and volume. But not many people care or even ask if their boss has an MBA or a business degree. That’s because there is no causal or universal truth to prove better managers are business school educated. Given the scale of corporate scandals and lack of public sector management accountability, perhaps the opposite has emerged from business school learning.

In Ireland, it can be difficult to distinguish the university commerce degree from a business studies programme at an institute of technology. One would assume a university education is, or should be, different, with research-led teaching and evidence-based scholarship.

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