The Gordon Institute of Business Science. Picture: Supplied
The Gordon Institute of Business Science. Picture: Supplied

The teaching format may have changed, but that is no reason for MBA programmes to dilute the robustness and intensity that have characterised them in the past, says Gordon Institute of Business Science (Gibs) academic head Louise Whittaker. While acknowledging that it’s important not to “break” academics and students already operating under severe duress because of Covid restrictions, she says an MBA should remain a “crucible” – a severe test or trial.

“The MBA is as intense as it ever was, but in different ways,” she says. “You still have to sit exams and produce assignments. You still have to meet deadlines.” While some content is presented differently to reflect the fact that online learning now dominates, “we can’t compromise on the quality of the learning”, says Whittaker. “We still want to pressure students, but in a psychologically safe way.”

Interim dean Morris Mthombeni says the school, part of the University of Pretoria, has been encouraging students to return to campus this year. “Some SA MBA students have never seen the campus or each other in their life,” he says. “We believe the best experience is the personal one.” Social distancing rules have limited numbers to 50% of capacity.

Last year, some Gibs students were resentful about being restricted to online study. In 2021, says Mthombeni, they are more at ease with the situation – even if they still don’t like it. “They understand the circumstances.” He predicts “another year of madness” before business education, including MBA programmes, returns to normal in 2023.

Few schools are better placed than Gibs to withstand market strains. Market research for the FM shows that 28% of employers polled consider its MBA to have the best reputation in SA. The second-placed school polled 21%. Among graduates from all schools, 30% said they would have chosen the Gibs degree if cost and school location were not as issue. The next school scored 18%.

If those leads narrow in the next 12 months, it won’t be for want of innovation. This year, Gibs has invited movie producers and scriptwriters to help lecturers make their virtual classes more engaging. Many academics, in SA as in the rest of the world, have discovered that the transition from classroom to online is not straightforward. Virtual teaching is a different art. Who better to help them succeed than experts whose job it is to make screen experiences slick and appealing?

In line with higher education regulations, SA MBAs are generalist programmes, meaning schools can’t offer sector-specific qualifications. They can, however, be sector-biased. Gibs, for example, offers generalist programmes weighted towards entrepreneurship or manufacturing.

Despite an international trend towards specialist MBAs, Mthombeni is happy for SA to stick to its generalist guns. “I’m not sure the local market is big enough for specialist MBAs,” he says. Besides the cost to schools of creating programmes they may subsequently have to scrap if demand is too small, specialist MBAs can limit long-term career options for students in an ever-changing employment market. “At this stage of their careers, many students don’t know what they want to focus on. It’s too early to pigeonhole themselves.”​

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