One hundred years ago a university introduced a programme into its curriculum which was to have a profound impact on the way in which graduate education developed. The then newly established Graduate School of Business Administration at Harvard University offered the world’s first Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree. This was the beginning of the concept of the professional graduate degree programme, and more specifically of the concept of the graduate and (often) post-experience programme that was to dominate professional management education.
It took a while for the MBA concept to be adopted elsewhere, but by the 1940s it was spreading across America, and from the late 1950s is also took hold in European universities. By the 1990s it had become the dominant graduate programme in business schools worldwide, and in both strategic and financial terms it was the driver not just of business schools, but sometimes of whole universities. The demand for MBAs seemed insatiable, and as many of the students were sponsored by their employers or were already wealthy, the fees were significant and therefore the revenues critical.
The syllabus for most MBAs is superficially similar, but the nature and indeed the quality of the programme has varied widely. In most institutions it is not offered as a full-time option for those who have just graduated from an undergraduate programme, but rather as a part-time option for those with business experience. The programme usually covers instruction in key management areas, followed by a more specialised dissertation.
But increasingly the MBA has been subjected to criticism. Some have argued that its value has been eroded by its proliferation across an excessive array of institutions; others have suggested that what was once an innovative programme that helped to professionalise business functions and inject an element of analysis and insight into management has become stale and out-of-date. Others have pointed to the difficulty in maintaining MBA standards when there are so many (and in some cases questionable) bodies offering accreditation. A number of universities have been looking at alternative approaches to management education.
The question that universities should now address is whether the 20th century approach to business schools needs to be revisited, and with it the concept of the MBA. It is unlikely that the degree itself should be abandoned, but it may need to be re-thought and made relevant and important to a new generation of managers. But it should also be looked at in the context of how universities should develop a taught postgraduate portfolio. The MBA was the prototype of such courses, and right now it is likely that professional graduate programmes will become much more widespread in a number of disciplines. Business schools should be involved in, and perhaps should lead, such wider debates about graduate education.
It is my expectation that, within the next ten years, we will in this part of the world be moving closer to the US model of a general undergraduate education in all disciplines followed by a professional postgraduate programme. The experience of the MBA should be seen as an important ingredient in the debate around how the teaching and learning portfolio of universities might develop in the future.