UK: IM SOUNDING BOARD - BUSINESS SCHOOLS PASS THE TEST.

UK: IM SOUNDING BOARD - BUSINESS SCHOOLS PASS THE TEST. - David T H Weir Professor at University of Bradford Management Centre and companion of the IM 'If government has its way it will become increasingly realistic for business schools to balance their

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

David T H Weir Professor at University of Bradford Management Centre and companion of the IM 'If government has its way it will become increasingly realistic for business schools to balance their books by meeting overseas markets' needs first. It will be to the detriment of the supply of trained graduates for British industry. Those who don't recognise this are the UK. Government and some senior luminaries that all but destroyed Britain's competitiveness in the past five decades'.

Imagine you produce something of national importance: demand is increasing; you exact premium prices for quality. Your system and standards are regarded internationally as a paradigm for excellence. You export 40% of your product. In this happy situation you are an unusual creature indeed in British industry and you might be entitled to feel, if not loved, at least respected for your contribution to the economy.

Your reward has been a brutal 7% cut in the price offered by government for your core product. You are the subject of ill-informed abuse by journalists solely interested in knocking the very qualities of excellence and relevance which the market most values.

By now you have guessed the industry. It's not popular music - it is management education. Popular music gets more recognition in the honours list than we do.

'MBAs in decline', 'Mediocre But Arrogant', 'Means B ... All' scream the headlines. The only professionals to get a worse press than the deans of UK business schools are the national cricket and football coaches.

It might even lighten the weary tenor of sad days in our 'ivory towers' to be pilloried as 'turnips' or 'boring old farts'.

But this is a game where we actually win the test matches. Management education as practised in Britain's leading business schools achieves the highest international academic standards and provides practical exposure to relevant management skills. The world-wide market understands the value of British qualifications. My own business school is offering its MBA degrees in Holland, Israel, Singapore, and the Gulf. All are tough competitive markets. All are choosing British. The world wants it. We have it. Why are we so willing to kick our own success story into touch?

Is there not 'too much' management education? Nonsense, the market is nowhere near saturated. Jim Ball, when principal of the London Business School, said in his Stockton lecture, that the curious thing about 'all this management education' was that there was so little of it about. Ten years later there is no evidence that demand is slowing up: the market is now more sophisticated but business schools have proven flexible and adaptable in meeting market expectations without diminution of quality.

f course, enrolments from home-based students for the full-time MBA in some schools have declined. There has been a growth of realism throughout the economy. The faceless corporations have ceased to regard a year's furlough on a management course at a prestige institution as an appropriate reward for 10 years of head office irrelevance. The bland no longer speak to the bland. Our 1996 MBAs are happy to criticise poor delivery and unmotivated performance. The business schools welcome that. We have been part of the mood of change that has produced it.

There are 100 providers of MBA programmes in Britain. Of course some are 'better' than others. So? All of these providers have had to meet the standards of the British higher education system. I am proud to chair the Association of Business Schools. We speak for the largest academic grouping within British higher education. We produce wealth and we need not apologise for being the beneficiaries of market demand. Choice brings pressures. The internal competitiveness within our market is strong indeed.

The enduring strength of university-based higher education in the professions of medicine, law and business has come from the rigour of its systems - sometimes cumbersome and conservative but jealously concerned with enduring standards of excellence. We are not prepared to compromise on these. So when government argues that competence-based qualifications will be the flavour of the next decade our cautious answer has been to judge by results, to be prepared to accept the results of alternative routes to qualification when they have proven themselves. Much of industry believes the same.

We know how much it costs to produce quality.

Our own productivity has risen by faster than the norm in any other sector in the UK economy in the last decade. We cannot be accused of wilful foot dragging. Business schools understand the need for alternative routes to qualifications, and have been the innovators in teaching and access.

If government is right and the 1990s British economy is a beacon to our competitors, shouldn't business education get at least some of the credit?

The global market knows about British management education, particularly our clients in the developing economies, the UK's new international competitors.

The big battalions know it. Ford, the BBC, Samsung all use my business school. The chief executive of Heinz, Tony O'Reilly, got his doctorate at Bradford.You can't get more 'ivory tower' than a doctorate. It paid off for him. But if Government has its way it will become increasingly realistic for business schools to balance their books by meeting overseas markets' needs first. It will be to the detriment of the supply of trained graduates for British industry. Those who don't recognise this are the UK government and some senior luminaries of the corporate class that all but destroyed Britain's competitiveness in the past five decades. 'When I was a lad we had none of this business education. It was Hovis three times a day, cold showers and no sex 'til you were 30 ...' Yes, and we were all living in cardboard boxes on the M1 then. That's when the overseas competition overtook us on the fast lane.

The Germans have been investing more in higher education since the 1870s; the Americans started their first business schools in the 1900s; the Japanese incorporate best practice in middle-management training and development; and in tiny Bahrain just under 30% of all middle managers have a higher qualification in business and management.

As Derek Bok, then president of Harvard University famously replied to businessmen concerned about the 'high costs' of his institution - 'If you think knowledge is expensive, try ignorance.' The UK has tried ignorance for too long. The business schools are the goose which consistently lays golden eggs. We would like to be laying more for the economy if government will kindly get its hands off our throat.

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