Grading systems: To grade or not to grade

Passes, merits and distinctions help employers differentiate between candidates, but they can cause conflict among students. Helen Jones reports
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The Independent Online

After a year or two of intensive study, you finally receive your MBA - but does it really matter what it says on the certificate?

Many MBA programmes operate a grade system and award top students a distinction or merit rather than just a pass. Jeanette Purcell, chief executive of the Association of MBAs, says, "A distinction can give you the edge with employers but the most important thing is that your MBA is from a good school - there's no point having a distinction if employers don't recognise the school in the first place."

MBA grades and whether they should be disclosed to potential employers is a debate that is raging at the top American business schools, including Harvard, Wharton and Stanford. At Harvard, for example, until 1998, students could discuss their grades and potential employers could ask for them. But following a vote by students it was decided that grades should not be discussed and only the top 5 per cent of each graduate class were allowed to tell potential employers about their achievement.

Now that decision has been reversed and Harvard students are angry, claiming that the disclosure of grades leads to friction and greater competition among the students rather than promoting teamwork.

It's for just this reason that Cranfield School of Management has chosen not to grade its MBA students. Séan Rickard, MBA director, explains: "Our course is split into two. The first part is the core course that everyone does. If they pass that, they go onto the second part where they can choose courses that they think will be of value to them in later life. If we gave the top 25 per cent a distinction it might stop them choosing courses that might be useful. They might take courses they know they are good at, rather than explore new opportunities. We want people to feel that they can experiment rather than just taking the safe option.

"Our students tend to be mature and very experienced and want to drill down into business rather than concentrate on grades."

At Smurfit School of Management in Dublin, students are graded with a first, merit or pass, but as Nick Barniville, MBA director, says: "To be honest we don't encourage competition, because a lot of the programme is about working together as a group. Of course, for some students exam grades will always be important for their own aspirations rather than as a route to employment."

IESE Business School at the University of Navarra in Barcelona also uses a grading system, but Mireia Rius, director of MBA admissions, says: "It's rare that an employer enquires about grades. They already know that each student has undergone a rigorous and competitive process to be selected for our programme."

"There is healthy competition between students," she says, "but much of the work at IESE is team-based or worked through first within a team context, so each student is most focused on personally adding value to the case discussion, both in the eyes of their fellow students and their professors."

While these institutions tend to downplay the grading system, Professor Ian Turner, director of the MBA programme at Henley Management College, says it is considering introducing grades: "In the past we didn't operate a grade system. People doing an MBA are pretty competitive and we needed them to be more co-operative and work in syndicated groups. Provided you worked hard you would pass. But we've discussed it internally at length and we're moving towards a system with credits and distinction. Some students really excel and we want them to put in that extra effort especially in their dissertations. Grades will give them that incentive."

As well as grading students, many MBA providers also have a range of prizes on offer to act as an incentive for students and to reward academic and social achievement.

Fergus Drake, a former aid worker for Tearfund's disaster relief team in sub-Saharan Africa and now a senior consultant at Deloitte, was awarded Cranfield School of Management's Tasman Cup for the person contributing most to his year. "While it was extremely flattering to be highly thought of by your peers and those teaching you," he says, "ultimately it's the MBA you want to achieve and anything else is just window dressing."

But Stephen Koepplinger, AMBA's Student of the Year 2005, says that his award has really helped his career goals: "I'm setting up my own social consultancy and it has given me legitimacy and a currency, if you like. It's a fantastic thing to be awarded."

As well as an MBA - with or without distinction - and prizes, students can also gain other CV-enhancing qualifications while they study. At overseas institutions, language qualifications can be taken in addition to the MBA course. At IESE, for example, students can take the Intermediate Diploma in Business Spanish and then go on to take an Advanced Diploma. Meanwhile at Lille Graduate School of Management, students can pick up qualifications in both French and project management.

Other institutions, including Henley Management College, offer additional tuition to allow students to prepare for Chartered Institute of Marketing qualifications.

But as Nick Barniville of Smurfit School of Management says: "Although MBA students can study for other qualifications, the MBA is the main focus and they simply don't have much time for anything else on a one-year course."

Bibhas Roy: 'It wasn't a prize I was aiming for, but it was a nice bonus'

An MBA is demanding but it's not all work and no play. For some students, such as Cranfield School of Management graduate Bibhas Roy, the sporting life was just as important - it was part of his career plan.

Bibhas was involved in the football and cricket teams while studying for his MBA and was awarded Cranfield's Mike Sellers Trophy for making the biggest contribution to the sporting life of the MBA programme. "It wasn't a prize I was aiming for, it just happened, but it was a nice bonus," says Bibhas.

Bibhas previously worked for Barclays in Tokyo where he was instrumental in getting International Cricket Council affiliate-membership for the Japan Cricket Association. He also played in the domestic second division league in Calcutta, and club league in Japan.

"I wanted to work in the sports world and the MBA was a way of doing that," he says. Bibhas now runs his own internet-based sports company with another Cranfield graduate. He says that it is possible to combine the MBA with an active social life: "You just have to manage your time properly, and for me sport helped me take my mind off the course and get away from it all for a while."

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