Jeanette Purcell: 'The MBA is safe in my hands'

In her first interview, the new head of the Association of MBAs tells Kathy Harvey why she won't be lowering standards
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The Independent Online

Times are tough for MBA graduates hoping to use their qualification to jump several rungs up the management ladder. Graduating from a top-notch business school no longer guarantees a large sign-on bonus and a job in consultancy or investment banking. So is it really worth anyone sinking £10,000 to £30,000 of savings into an MBA programme? Absolutely, says the woman who has just taken on the job of leading the Association of MBAs - the organisation which accredits the most prestigious courses in Europe.

Jeanette Purcell became the association's chief executive only three years after acquiring the qualification herself. A former civil servant with a background in education policy, she is passionate about the value of business education and the importance of the MBA as a qualification for aspiring managers. The job market may not be offering graduates as many immediate rewards as it used to but, she claims, most students are looking further ahead. "When times are hard in the job market, business schools do well," she says. "This is partly because people think it is a good time to take a break from work in order to study. But it's also because they realise that having a respected qualification will increase their worth in the long term."

The Association of MBAs was formed more than 30 years ago, when a group of British business people who had acquired their MBAs in the United States identified a need to promote the qualification in the UK. Once MBA programmes had been established, it also began to protect their quality and reputation. In the late 1960s, the MBA was a qualification for the few high-flyers who could cross the Atlantic and sign up at Harvard. Now, more than 11,000 people graduate in the UK each year, and more than 100 business schools offer a combination of full- or part-time MBA programmes. The association awards its seal of approval to fewer than a third of these and says the assessment criteria - covering everything from admission standards to the breadth of the curriculum - are designed to ensure high standards. Critics within the business-school establishment complain that the long list of requirements means good courses can easily fail to pass muster, and claim that the association is encouraging an elitist approach to business education. But Ms Purcell sees no reason to alter what she says are strict criteria for accreditation. "We want to work with business schools to help them improve their standards, but we believe it is important not to dilute the MBA brand."

Anyone searching for the most prestigious business school "brand" has no shortage of information on standards, from commercial rankings like those produced by the Financial Times to government research tables. The Association is only one of three organisations offering quality "kitemarks". Its critics argue that its focus on the MBA rather than the quality of the school as a whole is too narrow, and say its reason to exist has long since disappeared. Business schools, they say, already have a voice through their own membership association, which does a better job of liaising with government and promoting the MBA as a qualification. Ms Purcell dismisses these arguments. "We want to prove these people wrong. We know we offer applicants a quality benchmark, which is extremely important." The association can, she says, also offer vital information on academic research and standards at a time when the Labour government has expressed a determination to improve the education of managers and future business leaders. "We want our voice to be heard more in government circles. The intelligence we gather from schools and MBA graduates in the UK and beyond could be extremely useful."

As a late starter in higher education - she left school at 17 and did a first degree in her late twenties - Ms Purcell is proof that you don't have to complete your MBA by the time you are in your early thirties to make it worthwhile. "I studied for my own MBA at the age of 42 and can honestly say that the experience changed my life. I certainly wouldn't be here now, in this job, if I hadn't gritted my teeth and stayed the course." Poring over spreadsheets and accountancy books in her early forties was, she says, the hardest part of the course. "I stuck with it, and can truly say that it increased my confidence and self-esteem immensely. When I signed up for the course I felt my career was a bit stale. I wanted something to move me up a gear, and the MBA certainly did that."

The other thing it did, she claims, is make her realise the value of so-called "soft skills" for managers. "Potential leaders need to know how to deal with people and understand how other employees tick - these skills are essential to any MBA course." She is not convinced that business schools are giving these aspects of management the prominence they deserve. While some number-crunching can't be avoided, she thinks the emphasis should be shifting. "Perhaps we need an almost clean sheet of paper when it comes to drawing up a list of what makes a really good MBA," says Ms Purcell. "We need to look further at how we can encourage academics to improve this part of management education." Because recent government reports have called for more emphasis on leadership and people-management skills, Ms Purcell's views are likely to find favour with ministers and - potentially - give the Association the influence it seeks. "Our members, who all graduated from high quality programmes, expect us to promote the value of their hard-earned qualification", she says. "An MBA shouldn't just be letters after your name. It should give you the knowledge and skills to be a great business leader."

Jeanette Purcell: Career and education

1997 ­ 2003: Director of Education and Training, the Association of Accounting Technicians.

1990 ­ 1997: Two management positions at the Association of Accounting Technicians, including three years as head of the Professional Division

1989 ­ 1990: Secondment from the Committee of Directors of Polytechnics to establish the new Polytechnics and Colleges Employers' Forum (later merged with the Association of Colleges)

Jeanette started work in the 1970s as an executive officer with the civil service. She worked for two years in the chemicals industry before embarking on a career in higher education administration and policy development.

Education

2000 -2001: MBA with distinction, City University Business School

1979 -1982: BA Hons English Literature and Philosophy, University of East Anglia

Other: Visiting lecturer in leadership and management skills for City University Business School

education@independent.co.uk

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