Not all degrees are equal

When George Woods gets home in the evenings, he immerses himself in his master of business administration (MBA) studies.

Every Thursday night he meets with other MBA students and they split into workgroups.

Woods, who works in a pressured environment as an IT project manager for a major bank, decided to pursue his studies through Business School Netherlands (BSN).
Its “action learning” approach — where students solve problems at their own workplaces — appealed to him.

When the Council on Higher Education (CHE) released the results of its MBA accreditation survey last week, the BSN was not accredited.

Despite the CHE’s decision, Woods intends pursuing his studies at BSN. “This qualification will still work for me overseas,” he says.

Dr Dick Gerdzen, founder of BSN, thinks the CHE’s survey failed to take into account new methods of learning, such as action learning. “We find that although [action learning] is different from the traditional approach, companies see results,” he says. BSN students are required to be in managerial positions and use action learning to analyse and find solutions to work-related problems.

Gerdzen says too much weight has been given to a “piece of paper and academic conditions” and not enough to “how it benefits the individual and companies”.

According to Gerdzen the value of the school’s MBA is not only underscored by the fact that it is accredited in the United Kingdom and in the United States, but by the priority local parastatals are giving to the action learning method.

The school has been approached by Telkom to help develop and implement a programme, which will be based on action learning.

The CHE embarked on an evaluation of all the MBAs on offer in South Africa in April 2002.

“There has been a flood of MBAs on offer in the last five years and we wanted to know whether these curriculums were focusing on what they should,” says Dr Prem Naidoo, director of accreditation at the CHE.

A major criterion that was a bone of contention between the CHE and some institutions was the council’s requirement for a 25% research component.

Naidoo does not think this requirement was particularly demanding. “In any master’s degree the minimum research component is 50%. We cannot rely solely on global knowledge. We need workplace case studies relevant to our particular culture and country.”

The survey evaluated 13 universities, five technikons and nine private organisations. Ten didn’t make the cut and 12 received conditional accreditation, with one year to get their programmes up to scratch. The rest received full accreditation.

While the CHE received several lawyers’ letters last week from institutions challenging the reaccreditation process, Professor Salim Badat, CEO of the CHE, said that he was not aware of any legal action pending against the council.

Nerishni Shunmugam, a BSN graduate, feels that the CHE did not anticipate how its survey would affect individuals. “My dissertation alone took 164 hours and I had to complete it while caring for my newborn daughter. Add to that the R50 000 I paid for my MBA.” Now she feels cheated.

Shunmugam owns Prodigy, a skills development consulting firm. “An institution like Wits University offers a good MBA but it has an international study component during which you are required to be overseas for a certain period,” she says.

She did not have the time or the finances to do so and opted to study through the BSN. “The CHE looked at standardisation and quality but not at whether it was practical for black women such as myself to study at an institution like Wits,” she says.

Organisations might already be sitting up and taking heed of the CHE’s survey results. Clive Tasker, the director of both Standard Bank’s wealth division and its retail human resources division, says that what might occur is a “focusing on and ranking of the various institutions in line with the CHE’s report”.

Irene Donkin, a director of recruitment agency the Personnel Concept, says her firm’s clients are beginning to question where applicants have obtained their MBAs and what type of accreditation the institution received.

From an industry perspective it seems that the MBA qualification is not the golden key to success.

Denise Mantle, remuneration group consultant for Absa, says her company does “not specially seek out individuals with MBAs. We do, however, look for talented people who either have great potential or a proven track record of performance.”

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