To cater to the growing demands of the knowledge economies, B-Schools have been mushrooming just about everywhere. They all claim to offer the best education, only at variable prices. What is that key differential that indicates the intrinsic worth of these management schools—the course, the fee, the alumni or the ranking? How do you choose what’s best for you?
By Ananya Mukherjee

The increasing need for flexibility, cognitive skills, professional behaviour and new competencies has changed the face of executive education radically across the global economies in the past few years.  One cannot deny that with the emergence of the knowledge-economy, there is a growing pressure for consistent upgradation of existing skills and education to respond to the market force.

With that premise in mind, when both employers and employees understand the need for a degree in business management, the search for a good Business School begins. Now this is where the confusion of choice gets into the way. From an array of big names, each claiming to be the very best in their league, how do you choose which one is most suited for your career or pocket?

MBA rankings can help, but do they really influence the choice? Do they really matter, and so much?

Apparently yes, and to a great degree (pun intended)!

Some may argue that rankings can be deceptive, as they do not present a holistic view of the total quality of any school, but rankings matter. The fact that there are quite a few rankings of specific business programmes, and that they do not agree on details, is a reminder that rankings can be misleading.  “A publication’s ranking franchise represents its view on what are the measurable qualities that would make up a good business school or programme, since it has been difficult to get all stakeholders to agree on a common set of significant and measurable qualities,” says Associate Professor Quek Ser Aik, Vice-Dean, Graduate Studies, NUS Business School. 

The school’s MBA Programme has recently gone up to secure the 23rd position according to The Financial Times ranking, making it the best global MBA ranking by a major agency this year. INSEAD is at number 4 in 2011. Professor Jake Cohen, Dean of MBA, INSEAD, corroborates that MBA rankings do play a role in raising awareness about MBA programmes and the differences between programmes. They are typically a useful source of information for MBA prospects when they start doing research into MBA programmes. “When making a commitment to a school, either by enrolling as a student, or by sponsoring an employee to attend a programme, it is always reassuring to know that the school is well ranked, as rankings do influence public perceptions,” he says.

However, at the same time, he advises employers and students to treat rankings with caution and not base their view of a school purely on a ranking.

Ria Sugita, Director of Marketing, The University of Chicago Booth School of Business agrees that ranking is important as it gives prospective students a guideline on how the programmes are doing. However, to be effective, she says, prospective students need to be aware of two important points when evaluating rankings that are available. Firstly, Sugita highlights that it is important to only look at rankings which have been prepared by top-tier publications to be credible. “The publications should be well respected and considered to be a source of objective and credible information.”

In addition, consistency in ranking is key. “If a programme is ranked number one this year but it’s ranked number 12 next year, there is no consistency. Therefore it is imperative to note that if a school has been ranked the top 5 or top 10 time after time for the last several years, there is a consistency about the programme.”

Noteworthy, The University of Chicago Booth School of Business has ranked in the top ten (including top 5) 81 times out of 86 rankings since 2001.

Points to Ponder

•    How does one MBA programme compare to another in terms of cost?
•    Why you do want a degree in the first place – for knowledge, brand name or network?
•    Where does your GMAT score qualify and place you?
•    How much time can you invest for a degree (Full-time, Part-time, MBA/EMBA)?
•    Are university run MBAs different in any way from those by education service providers in terms of placement and market value? 

Are B-schools led by MBA-ranking metrics?

The ranking of business schools is a hugely controversial and tremendously popular topic in business education. Most ranking are administered by for-profit organisations with a journalistic intent. Of course, there are differences in the level of rigor applied to these research efforts. The primary difference between rankings, however, is one of perspective. Naturally, to understand the MBA rankings, it is necessary to understand the basis on which their judgments are made.

Most MBA rankings consist of comprehensive set of measures and therefore it can be seen as a good tool to compare different MBA/EMBA programmes –using the same set of measures over the years. One needs to remember that all the schools listed in The Financial Times or The Economist ranking are ‘top schools’ – there are thousands of other MBA/EMBA programmes which are not even qualified as leading MBA/EMBA programmes.  It is a sort of certificate for a student that the school is high ranked and for the school that its programme is recognised on a global basis. 

“I think the most important issue is that the rankings tell about the international quality of the programme.  When you apply for a job outside your own country, the diploma is valued when you can indicate that it comes from a highly ranked programme,” says Dr Minna Hiillos, Academic Dean, Aalto University Executive Education.

Ranking is an important tool to gauge the overall international standing of a school but in choosing a programme, it is best to review the curriculum, the cost involved, the duration of the MBA programme, the quality of the faculty and also the alumni network, amongst others. For instance, if the school has a large number of international students working in Asia, the overall salary increase computation will score lower than those with a large number of students working in Europe because of differing wage systems. 

Most B-schools do not depend entirely on these metrics and run a constant quality control with student feedback and other
feedback mechanisms.

“We do not manage our programmes with a view to our position in rankings. So we would never change something simply because it may affect the rankings. We have our own view of what makes a great MBA programme: outstanding teaching, the best and most  diverse students and faculty community, world-class recruitment opportunities across the globe, a strong and active alumni network around the world. This is what we focus on. In some cases, these priorities also help us in some rankings, but not always,” Cohen points out.

Must see beyond ranking

Needless to say, an official and well recognised MBA ranking like FT is a good tool for students to start basic research regarding various MBA/EMBA programmes, but it shouldn’t be the only truth in selecting the school and the programme. It is also important to discuss with the alumni, faculty and evaluate the content of the programme – schools accreditations (quality labels like AACSB, AMBA) should also be extremely important as selection criteria for students.

The MBA ranking is a good tool for schools to see its current position, strengths and it also gives a good insight what are the areas which need to be improved compare to peers. Both for students and schools the longitudinal data, like a three-year average ranking is a good longer-term tool giving a direction where the MBA/EMBA programme is evolving. “The employer can trust that a ranked programme, provides the student with high quality teaching covering all the essential areas of business and management. The student can likewise trust that the programme really gives him/her the knowledge, skills and insights that truly improve his/her market value,” Hiillos remarks.

Moreover, much as it will add value to graduate from a high ranking B-School, no employer would focus only on ranking while browsing through your curriculum vitae when hiring. Recruiters typically do not focus on rankings as the main criterion in selecting their candidates, and students do not usually use rankings as the only indication of the quality of a school.

The long and short of it

As said earlier, the rankings are typically useful when MBA prospects are researching for MBA programmes. However, rankings are based on different methodologies and no one particular methodology is perfect, so prospects should not just take ranking at a face value, but also must delve deeper and assess whether or not the used methodology is relevant to their individual goals. Short list your own preferences and use multiple information sources like school alumni, career statistics and current student profiles and then make the right choice.