Weighing up the MBA choices

Each decision a person makes has its advantages and the options need to be weighed up carefully to work out what the best fit is. Debbie Goodman-Bhyat, managing director of Jack Hammer Executive Headhunters, says gaining an MBA will generally improve a graduate’s prospects, particularly when it supplements non-business or non-commercial-related undergraduate degrees.

She says the better the business school and its brand, the more likely a candidate will stand out. However, says Adcorp labour economist Loane Sharpe, MBAs can vary in quality even at the same school and much of its success comes down to fellow participants. He advocates looking at who else will be in the class, their positions and track record before selecting to study in a particular year. “An MBA is the most important business network of your life.”

Yet, it is important for students to investigate the business school they wish to enroll in to ensure they are accredited, says Dr Maria dos Santos, academic head of postgraduate at Regenesys Business School.

Highly rated

According to the 2013/14 QS Global 200 Business Schools Report, while there are no elite category schools in Africa, the top institutions on the continent are the University of Cape Town (UCT) Graduate School of Busi­ness and University of Witwaters­rand’s Wits Business School (WBS). UCT remains the region’s top performer for employer recognition, ahead of WBS, its report notes.

UCT and WBS’s MBAs both remain in top rankings and offer the best value globally for local ­students, says Sharpe. He says that Stellenbosch, the University of Pretoria, which is offered through the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) and the University of South Africa are further­ behind. Apart from the institutions he rates as the top five, “the rest don’t really feature”.

Yet, doing a course through an international university does not make sense unless it is highly regarded, such as Harvard, and someone wants a top inter­national post, because of the cost involved, he says. Goodman-Bhyat believes some international business schools boast excellent brands and reputations, such as Harvard, Insead and Stanford, and that it counts for a lot when one can cite these schools on one’s resumes. When it comes to actual course content and learning, there are some good local business schools, such as UCT, WBS and GIBS.

Another option for potential students is to do an online course, but Professor Nicola Kleyn, deputy dean at GIBS, says if one does an MBA through distance learning, you could lose the important benefits that come from face-to-face inter­actions with other students and faculty. “A significant benefit of doing an MBA is the access to a high-quality network of individuals that students will constantly rely on during their personal and professional devel­op­­ment.” Dr Marlise Terblanche-Smit, head of the MBA programme at the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB), notes an online course would hamper one-on-one communication, group work, discussions, as well as having lectures in a class situation.

However, she explains, most of these elements can be addressed by online courses through virtual classrooms and groups. “It is a matter of what works for the student and what they prefer.” Dr James Mulli, programme ­director of the Online MBA at European University Business School, says its online MBA ­programme allows students to interact with each other face to face, in real-time wherever they are in the world. Students are required to link up in an interactive forum on three different occasions at least three times a week. Mulli argues that the least amount of learning happens in lectures — and that the most learning comes from collaboration between students.

“The online forum environment is, by its very nature, a collaborative venture and therefore lends itself extremely well to full and efficient learning.”

Online programmes

Another advantage, says Mulli, is that online programmes are generally less expensive than campus-based ones — and students who do not travel save on high relocation costs, the hassle of applying for a visa and also the challenges of adapting to a new environment. “I’d say that the traditional ‘bricks and mortar’ approach to business education is old fashioned. Today’s online MBA offers top quality faculty, excellent interaction with classmates and professors, and even great networking opportunities.”

In addition, says Mulli, online courses, while tough, are more flexible when it comes to time management. Dos Santos adds social networks are also beneficial because they are a part of everyday life and, used correctly, can improve interaction within a virtual classroom. “New tools and technology are helping with this engagement everyday and it is important to choose a business school that stays up to date with these trends.”

While online courses are not contact-free, because they do still offer study groups, they are much more based on the students’ own drive, says Sharpe. He adds being on ­campus is an advantage, as is studying full-time and not part-time because this is a “real commitment of resources”. 

Intensive degree

Sharpe explains the MBA is not a degree to be tackled lightly because students do an intensive course that is fully immersive, and forgo an income for a year. This is a real indicator that someone is making a “staggering” investment in their future. “They stand out from the crowd.”

Sharpe says, as a general rule, the younger one does an MBA the ­better and that the degree adds less value the older a person gets. It is also ­easier for a younger person — who may not yet be married or have children — to handle the requirements of the degree. The sacrifices that need to be made during an MBA cannot be ignored. He adds that an MBA is one of the most intensive learning experiences a student can have. “I don’t know how people survive.”

Goodman-Bhyat says there will usually be a major challenge in the balance of work, family and study responsibilities. “Unless you are taking a sabbatical and studying full time, expect extreme pressure and a pressurised life for the duration of the course. Embarking on an MBA must definitely be cleared upfront with an employer, and preferably involve being able to take some time off.”

Kleyn says anyone who thinks an MBA is an easy option to obtain a masters’ degree has the wrong idea. “Our students report that the ­pressure enables them to learn to manage their scarcest resource — their time.” However, MBAs no longer guarantee success, or promotion, says Sharpe. He says many companies also prefer people with CAs over MBAs to be chief executives. Chief executives in South Africa are of a high calibre because they have CAs.

There is a dearth of managers in South Africa, with about 470 000 vacancies currently in the private sector, of which 52% are in management. Yet, he notes, only 1 200 people do MBAs each year at the top five schools.

This article has been made possible by the Mail & Guardian's advertisers. Content has been sourced independently by the Mail & Guardian Supplements editorial team.

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