Why do managers choose to study for an MBA? To Della Bradshaw, the brains behind the Financial Times rankings, the answer is simple – to get a better job.
But does the research carried out by business school academics, and which ensures that a business school does better in the league tables, help students to get that better job? The FT devotes 10 per cent of the total score in its league tables to research published in 40 academic journals, predominantly American ones. But Murray Steele, of Cranfield School of Management, says that executives never read the journals.
"There are 3,300 researchers in British business schools," he says. "I have nothing against research – but the game isn't research any more, it's getting published in the right journals."
Steele has called on the FT to alter its criteria to reflect the contribution made by research to improving management practice. A better measure, he says, would be to ask how much people were prepared to pay for research. Another might be: how much revenue is created by it?
Steele's attack on the research weighting is one of several that have been aimed recently at the paper's scoring system, which uses 20 separate criteria in its global MBA rankings. The main complaint of Roger Martin, dean of Rotman School in Canada, is that the FT does not compare like with like. His detailed analysis of the rankings finds that a new kind of school is scoring well.
"Highly ranked schools can have as few as 48 graduating students, much smaller than the number of EMBA students we graduate in a year," he says. "I don't believe that any school that puts out fewer than 200 graduates a year is creating a meaningful footprint on the world."
Many of these business schools, he says, offer no doctorate education. "They rank very low in research output, making virtually no contribution to business knowledge."
The fact that Steele and Martin seem to disagree about research neatly illustrates the difficulty of compiling rankings. But why are academics so bothered about them anyway? Bradshaw herself has always insisted that rankings should never be considered in isolation when it comes to choosing a course.
The answer is that, coinciding as they have with a period of global growth, they are now phenomenally influential among prospective students everywhere. Arguably the FT lists of various MBAs and Masters courses are now more studied than those of their main rival, the American Business Week, which excludes salaries and concentrates on schools in the USA.
Schools are said to gear their entry criteria towards the rankings. A few might favour small classes of older candidates earning high salaries. Others with large entries might lower the age of entrants, to ensure that they obtain a higher salary increase percentage, another league table measure.
"The MBA is getting further and further away from a post-experience qualification," complains Chris Bones, dean of Henley Business School. "I think the customer experience should be what is ranked. Did the students get what they were expecting? Does the corporate world get the sort of people out of business schools that they think add value to their organisation?"
Privately, business schools complain about the time and cost involved in producing the statistics, but are quick to trumpet any success in the rankings, and use them widely in their marketing.
Rankings that depend on information from former students, of course, are always open to the charge that is in the alumni's interests to talk up their old schools. Beyond that, the criteria can seem arbitrary. Bones questions whether it matters how many women sit on a business school's board, for example.
"The number of full-time staff is a rankings criterion which overlooks one of our greatest assets, says Professor James Fleck, dean of the Open University Business School. "The majority of our tutors are part-time associate lecturers, practising professionals who enrich the learning experience by sharing their expertise and experience."
Oliver Westall, MBA director at Lancaster University Management College (ranked 27th in the world), says the rankings need to be used intelligently. "It's been clear over the last 10 or 15 years that some schools have got very good results because they're closely linked with finance markets and consultancy firms.
"At Lancaster we have always seen ourselves as focusing more on material skills than on a narrow range of technical skills, which we would pass happily to our colleagues in the finance department," he says.
Professor Ken Starkey, of Nottingham Business School, where the full-time MBA is ranked 100th in the world by the FT, is among those who think the rankings are disproportionately focused on the desire for a better- paid job.
"There should be some re-analysis of what business schools do in terms of trying to create the kinds of behaviour that create better organisations," says Starkey.
But the question is whether that can be measured. He pauses: "It's something to aspire to, at least. There needs to be some kind of debate about what might replace the bottom line."
None of these criticisms surprise Bradshaw, business education editor of the Financial Times. Over the years she has been endlessly lobbied – for example, to include share options as part of the salary package, or to incorporate corporate social responsibility, or teaching quality.
In answer to complaints about the dominance of research rankings in the table, she points out that nothing stops professors from teaching their research to MBA students or executives. "The schools that have the highest publication rates in the journals also publish lots of articles in practitioner journals (such as Harvard Business Review) and case studies."
So should salary command 40 per cent of the points? The FT data, she points out, is weighted to ensure that business schools placing large numbers of individuals in high-paying sectors (Wharton, Columbia and NYU on Wall Street, for example) do not gain an advantage.
"We always keep an eye on things," says Bradshaw. Although at the moment she has no plans for change.
'The rankings did play a part'
Richard Adams, 38, is taking a full-time MBA at Strathclyde Business School, Glasgow, ranked ninth in the UK by the Financial Times. Did the rankings effect his choice?
"I was an officer in the Royal Navy, working on submarines for 19 years. When I decided to leave, I thought an MBA would give me the best chance in the job market. I'll be looking at the energy and engineering sectors when I graduate in September.
My family is in Glasgow, so the fact that there were two good business schools in the city was a very big factor. The rankings did play a part – I looked at the FT and saw that Strathclyde was the best in Scotland.
"But the school's triple accreditation and the course fees were equally important. Also, a friend's wife had done a part-time MBA at Strathclyde and her impressions affected me. Everything went into the mix when I made my final choice."