Picture: 123RF/mavoimage
Picture: 123RF/mavoimage

What’s the going price for 100,000l of hand sanitiser? Rhodes University asked itself this question after its pharmacy department produced just that at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Maybe the money could boost the university’s coffers, at a time of financial strain for all educational institutions? Perhaps the pharmacy department should benefit directly? Or is there an argument for creating bursaries for needy students?

The eventual decision was … none of the above. All 100,000l were given away, free of charge, to the local community in and around Makhanda, formerly Grahamstown, in the Eastern Cape.

“It was not a difficult decision to make,” says Rhodes Business School director Owen Skae. “It was never about making money, but about saving lives. We are part of this community.”

It’s a message most SA business schools understand: that they exist not just to provide executive education and business qualifications to the privileged few (usually in return for a generous fee) but also to assist broader society.

It’s why Skae is so vocal about SA’s failure to foster a spirit of entrepreneurship among young people. It starts at school, where “there’s nothing in the syllabus to excite them to make their own way in life”. By the time they get to university, they have already decided their goal in life is to become employees.

Those who do want to create a business of their own are often stifled by government regulations. “You need an environment where people are willing to take risks,” he says. “Policymakers have not got to the heart of the issue, and unfortunately I don’t believe there is the political will to do what is needed. The cost of doing business is astronomical.”

Business schools research and teach entrepreneurship within their various academic and professional programmes, including the MBA. “All this research, and we are going nowhere,” says Skae. “Unless the system encourages and makes it easier, we will have only diehard entrepreneurs.”

What about diehard MBA students? The Covid-driven shift to online programmes in 2020 has forced schools to reconsider their future teaching methods. Students have also had to adapt to a system that, instead of putting them in a classroom with lecturers and fellow students, requires them to interact remotely through a computer or tablet screen.

Most students have adjusted -but that doesn’t mean they like everything about this virtual world. Rhodes offers both a part-time and a full-time MBA. Skae says second-year students finishing this year asked to return to campus for a farewell party. “They are saddened at being separated from people who were such a big part of their lives for over a year,” he says. “They want an opportunity to reconnect and say goodbye.”

By student numbers, Rhodes is the smallest of the SA business schools that contributed to MBA market research for the 2020 edition of SA’s Top MBAs. Like other schools, Rhodes is finding that traditional application patterns have been disrupted by Covid-19 uncertainty. Across SA many potential students have lost income or jobs, and employers are cutting back on study bursaries.

Skae says: “Our MBA inquiries for next year are the same as ever, but they are not translating yet into applications. I’m quite apprehensive. People are hedging their bets. I understand why; an MBA is a huge commitment in time and money – and not just for the students. The employers must also be committed to granting them time and space to study.”

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