Levelling the MBA playing field

A new accord will harmonise the framework of HE degrees. By Steve McCormack
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The worlds of graduate management education and professional football haven't hitherto been renowned for their similarities, but in one respect there is a comparison to be drawn, albeit one separated in time.

The worlds of graduate management education and professional football haven't hitherto been renowned for their similarities, but in one respect there is a comparison to be drawn, albeit one separated in time.

A decade or so ago, football in the UK had to adapt to a new European order. A number of factors - among them the Bosman ruling, liberalising the transfer market, the end of nationality quotas for club teams playing in European competitions, and the increasing commercial power of television - transformed the face of the game on both sides of the English Channel. Now, leading English and Scottish club sides are packed with foreign players, and the richest European clubs vie for the signatures of the best British talent.

A similarly seismic jolt is about to hit the continent's higher education landscape, with after-shocks likely to reverberate around MBA programmes with particular intensity.

The cause is something called the Bologna Accord: not a European directive regulating pasta sauce manufacturing, but a process seeking to harmonise the framework of higher education degrees. It takes the name of the Italian city because that was where initial agreement was reached. By 2010, the 40 signatory countries hope to be offering an identical pattern of first degree, Masters and doctorate awards. Currently, there are numerous different versions in operation, making it difficult, if not impossible, for qualifications to be compared and for students to transfer between courses across national boundaries.

At first glance, the reforms appear favourable to British institutions, since the new template will match the existing set-up in the UK, but the more that business schools peer into the future, the more they see potential threats as well as opportunities.

"It's going to upset the balance of power in a big way," predicts Kai Peters, who jointly chaired a Bologna Task Force, set up by the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), an association of 138 business schools around the world.

The key catalyst will be the emergence, in continental Europe, of a system where a Bachelor's degree lasts three or fours years maximum, and a Masters takes one or two years. Until now, most countries have rolled these two elements into one degree course, ending with the award of a Masters, and lasting anything up to seven years.

This will force millions of students, who before the change would have pursued one long course, to take stock and think when they are awarded their Bachelor's after three years.

The expectation is that a large proportion of these will change courses for the Masters element, choosing a management-related Masters programme or an MBA, rather than continuing for another two years with their heads in books about, say, mediaeval French or the geology of the Dolomites.

Peters, also the CEO of Ashridge in Hertfordshire, estimates that, by 2008/9 this factor will more than double the existing pool of MBA students across Europe, from 20,000 to around 45,000. It's anybody's guess, at the moment, where these students will end up.

Among the institutions vying for their business will be those mainland European universities forced to re-configure their programmes. The need to design free-standing one- or two-year Masters programmes will inevitably lead many to set up new MBAs within existing management faculties. The GMAC task force estimated that there'd be 12,000 such new programmes flooding the market. Many, undoubtedly, will offer teaching in the English language as a further selling point. "The big brands will do well," predicts Peters, "and some programmes will shut down."

Among those big brands is Cranfield School of Management, where the Director, Professor Michael Osbaldeston, certainly sees increased competition among employers and HE institutions for the flood of new bachelor graduates across most of Europe.

Many of these, Osbaldeston thinks, will plump straight away for what's known as a pre- (working) experience management Masters. He can't see a sudden end to the continental habit of investing in a long period of education before moving into employment.

With more Masters graduates around as a result, Osbaldeston argues employers will have to become more discerning about where the Masters is from. And here, the British model MBA programme should retain its uniqueness.

"Good business schools with good MBA programmes are already over-subscribed and I foresee that the main impact of the Bologna Accord will be that such schools will be able to select from an even more internationally mobile student population," Osbaldeston says.

At Cass Business School, located at London's City University, the Deputy Dean Professor Steve Haberman broadly agrees, but with one caveat. "We can't afford to be complacent. The Bologna Accord will radically increase the number of MBA and pre-experience MSc programmes that students can choose from. At Cass we will be putting a big emphasis on making sure potential students continue to come to us," he says.

Across the Channel, business schools are holding their breath to see the extent to which their MBA programmes maintain their unique "stand-out" quality once the market becomes populated with thousands more pre-experience management Masters.

At Grenoble Ecole de Management, where the full-time MBA currently has 50 students, from all over the world, and which is growing at more than 5 per cent a year, the Dean, Thierry Grange, thinks the question cannot be answered yet. "The effect will come in two or three years' time when it becomes clear around Europe how the MBA is viewed," he says.

For some, there's a danger that the expansion in the overall Masters market will lead to a dilution in the prestige of the MBA. Among those with such concerns is Professor Ian Turner, Director of Graduate Business Studies at Henley Management College. He cautions MBA programmes against the temptation of devaluing their currency. "I believe it is up to employers to articulate their requirements to students and for accreditation bodies, such as AMBA and EQUIS, to hold the line on post-experience qualifications."

And holding the line is just what the Association of MBAs (AMBA) is determined to do. Their Chief Executive, Jeanette Purcell, is keenly aware of a degree of nervousness of some accredited MBA programme providers. "There's a danger of seeing some European schools cutting their programmes in half, calling the first half a Bachelor's, and following it with what might be called an MBA. We don't think that's appropriate," she says.

To this end, the Association of MBAs has decided to introduce accreditation for pre-experience management Masters as well as MBA programmes to try to bring clarity to what may become a confused market, and embed, as widely as possible, the essential difference between the two types of qualification.