Owen Skae. Picture: ROBERT TSHABALALA
Owen Skae. Picture: ROBERT TSHABALALA

The problem with being a small business school in a corner of SA often painted as dysfunctional is that you have to make an “extraordinary” case to persuade companies you can provide them with top-class executive education, says Owen Skae. The flip side of the coin is that once you’ve proved you can, they are “incredibly loyal”.

So it has proved for Rhodes Business School (RBS), of which Skae is director. Whereas some schools have had a drop-off in corporate business because of Covid-19, Skae says some RBS clients have actually increased training. That, allied to growing demand for contract research, chiefly from the public sector, has cushioned the school from the worst of SA’s economic problems.

RBS is part of Rhodes University, in the Eastern Cape city of Makhanda, formerly Grahamstown. Both the province and the city have reputations for extreme governmental incompetence. This year, the Makhanda high court ordered that the local municipal council be dissolved and placed under administration for failing to provide basic services like sewerage, clean water and refuse removal.

RBS, in partnership with the university and community, has been an active participant in efforts to improve conditions in the area. Among other functions, Skae says the school has a core role in educational upliftment.

Called upon, he says, schools can play a part in improving SA society as a whole. The fallout from Covid-19 has worsened SA’s already terrible record of social inequality. Only with the aid of business can the issue be confronted effectively.

First, though, Skae says national politicians must overcome their mistrust of business and their belief that its only motive is self-enrichment (an ironic view, given the level of government corruption). He says: “Business and government have to work together to meet the country’s challenges. Business schools want to be part of this solution.”

Like other schools, RBS has had to adjust its teaching methods to meet the challenges of Covid-19. Skae says it was “thrust willingly” into online teaching but looks forward to the return of some face-to-face classroom teaching.

While there are undeniable cost and convenience advantages to online communication, “it’s not a panacea”. He says: “We all have to ask ourselves what is the best possible teaching model that takes into account all the factors we will encounter down the line.”

After 10 years as director, Skae is looking forward to the school finally moving into its own building. Since its launch in 2000, the school has lodged in the university’s theatre school. Skae hopes lack of teaching and administrative space will be a thing of the past when the school moves to the university’s main administration block, as part of a plan to bring together various divisions of the commerce faculty.

No date has been finalised for the move but Skae says: “The university has always had other spending priorities but now it has funding available for us. We hope to have a custom-made facility.”​

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