Picture: 123RF/Nirat Makjantuk
Picture: 123RF/Nirat Makjantuk

For a qualification that’s been “dead” for 40 years, the MBA degree is displaying remarkable vitality, says Henley Africa dean Jon Foster-Pedley. So much so, that his Joburg-based business school is receiving record numbers of applications to study for the degree in 2021.

The MBA, which is well over 100 years old, is regularly accused of being stuck in its illustrious past and out of touch with the needs of the present. In fact, says Foster-Pedley, it’s never been more relevant in Africa.

The continent is crying out for capable entrepreneurs, business leaders and managers, particularly in the post-Covid world. “We need brave people who will create jobs and build Africa,” he says.

The MBA can contribute to that, as long as it evolves to meet changing needs. “It must reflect life as it is, not as we remember it,” he says. “People have been saying for 40 years that the MBA is dead. It’s not, and that’s because it has continually reinvented itself.” Nowhere is this truer than in SA, where content reflects a mixture of both international and African context.

All MBAs offered by SA business schools are accredited by the government’s Council on Higher Education. Among the elements it regulates are entry standards, curriculum, content and outcomes. But these are just the bones. “Real MBAs have richness beyond that,” says Foster-Pedley. “They reflect life. They have context.”

They also challenge people to think for themselves. In the deepest sense of the word, SA MBAs are not “academic”. They are not intended to teach theory but to prepare people for real leadership and real business. Foster-Pedley describes Henley’s MBA as “applied and project driven”.

He says: “An MBA should not be about what you are taught but about what you ask. It’s a qualification that won’t give you all the answers but, more importantly, will give you the lifelong skills to work out those answers for yourself.”

The message appears to have struck a chord. Henley Africa recently reported that applications for its MBA programme had already set a new record of 580 this year. Experience shows that many of these hopefuls will drop out before actual enrolment.

Market research for the FM shows that of 463 people who applied to Henley last year to start an MBA in 2020, 287 were accepted and 202 actually enrolled. Across the SA business school community as a whole, 7,555 applied, 3,134 were approved and 2,224 took up the offer.

Would-be students hoping to start in 2021 will find additional obstacles. Covid-induced business stresses have persuaded many companies to reduce or suspend MBA bursary programmes for employees. Henley, on the other hand, has actually increased the number of scholarships it offers to promising students.

Foster-Pedley is delighted by the number of applications. He says: “MBA recruitment is almost entirely driven by word of mouth, and it’s motivating to see that we are delivering, people are talking about the value of our MBA and that more and more people are coming to us.”

Henley’s growth extends beyond MBAs. Including executive education and other programmes, Foster-Pedley says the school “has grown over 1,000% in the past 10 years”.

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