Many business schools will have greeted the new year with a sigh of relief, enjoying a breather between the deadline for submissions for the Research Assessment Exercise at the end of November and the publication of results at the end of this year. The results are big news for business schools. "Research intensive" is often seen as analogous for "best" when talking about universities and business schools and MBA students looking for the best often look to a school's research rating.
It should be a sound strategy, but the understandable fear is that instead of being taught by star gurus or energetic young researchers, all but a few electives might be taken by unknowns.
Schools recognise the tension between research and teaching. "Research is the keystone of the reputation of the place," says Thomas Ahrens, the associate dean at Warwick Business School. On the other hand, British business schools rely on tuition fees to survive. "And if we don't perform at the coalface, we're dead," he adds.
Some warn that MBA teachers are spending too much time at the coalface and not enough on the engineering. Paul Danos, the dean of Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth in the US claims that the global MBA boom means some students are being taught on the cheap. New business schools, he says, are scrimping on staff, recruiting teachers without the research skills necessary to do the job.
Others argue that top schools' obsession with research excellence has gone too far. Last year Harvard set up a committee to strengthen teaching at the traditionally research-rich university.
Traditionally, business schools are seen as teaching rather than research institutions and are looked down on. "There are many business schools whose purpose is to disseminate the knowledge of business and teaching is the only thing they do," says Julian Birkinshaw, the deputy dean at London Business School. "In the premier league we have no choice but to do both equally well. It falls apart very quickly if we do one more than the other."
That means getting researchers into the classroom. "You'd expect people doing the research to do the teaching," says Professor Steve Haberman, the deputy dean at Cass Business School. "You need people teaching who can pose solutions, and that's what research gives you."
Research ratings will not tell you whether you will get the real McCoy. Some schools tell you who is teaching a module in their prospectus, others on the phone – although many schools decide their time-table after students apply.
Great research is little use to students if taught badly. There are few things duller than watching someone stumble their way through a PowerPoint presentation. Which is why Ahrens warns teachers at Warwick against technology in favour of some old fashioned narrative. At Warwick teachers are recruited for their research and then trained to teach.
The most important thing is engagement. "Our philosophy is to teach actively," says Jane McKenzie the professor of management knowledge and learning at Henley Management College. That means constantly involving students in the work and encouraging discussion.
As a private institution, Henley has until now been spared the Research Assessment Exercise, but that looks likely to change, with merger talks with the University of Reading announced earlier this month.
And prospective students should remember that teachers are only one part of the classroom dynamic. MBA students bring years of industry experience into the classroom.
To get the most out of that, students need to look beyond the RAE rating to consider class sizes, students' work experience, and what alumni go on to do to get a measure of their potential peers.
'An MBA is a lot more than the academic side'
Ian Widger, 43, graduated with an MBA from Cranfield School of Management this year.
"I had a PhD in atomisation and spray technology. Then I did research for 10 years after which I was looking for a career change. When I examined different schools I didn't think much about the research side.
I was more interested in the softer side of what Cranfield had to offer. I felt it was more suited to the mature student, and at the open day I was impressed by the engaging, supportive lectures.
A big aspect of the course was working closely in learning teams, with people of different nationalities and backgrounds, just as you would in business.
Discussions would come up on lecturers' research, but what people brought to the table, was both knowledge-based and research-based, not one or the other.
An MBA is an awful lot more than the academic side. It was a whole-hearted, one-year experience, with engaging lectures, a supportive network, and team work. It couldn't be put down to one particular thing."Reuse content