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Is there a better time to take stock of your career, and of what you want to achieve from it, than during a period of flux like the one we are experiencing now? asks Catherin Duggan, director of the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business (GSB).

There’s a lot of uncertainty about the immediate future – socially, economically and technologically – and its impact on job trends. Surely, says Duggan, it’s precisely why this is the time to pause and prepare for the unexpected.

MBAs offer a unique opportunity to do just that. “They can change your life,” she says. But not just any MBA. For example, Duggan is happy for SA higher education regulators to insist that SA MBA programmes are generalist – meaning that content is not limited to one industry. Elective courses may be industry specific, but the overall degree teaches knowledge that is valid across all sectors.

Specialist MBAs are flourishing in other countries; but Duggan says they can “constrain” the careers of young MBA students. “I don’t want students to invest in an MBA that will limit their options down the road. A lot of jobs that will exist in 30 years don’t exist today. A specialised MBA may keep you from those. I want my graduates to know they will be capable one day of running a company in an industry that doesn’t yet exist."

Nor does she think students should choose overseas MBAs for the sake of “foreign” kudos. Many international business schools are excellent, but are their programmes relevant to SA or the rest of Africa?   “None of them has the depth of understanding of Africa that local schools do.”

An African MBA should offer students fundamental business skills but also the ability to succeed in an emerging-market environment.

Of GSB, Duggan says: “I want us to have an MBA that no one else has in the rest of the world. I want people from all over the world to come here and focus on Africa’s big challenges. I want them to work together, then go back to their own countries understanding Africa from an African perspective.”

The value of an MBA, says Duggan, far outweighs the cost. In the latest London Financial Times ranking of full-time MBAs, GSB was placed fifth in the world in terms of value for money. Converted from rands to dollars, its programme costs a quarter of what students can expect to pay in some US schools.

Covid, with its accompanying lockdowns and social distancing, has had a big impact on GSB’s full-time MBA student numbers. But in fact these have been declining for some years, in line with a general SA trend. Despite Wits and Stellenbosch University business schools scrapping full-time courses in the past two years, Duggan says there is a market for them at GSB. At least, there will be when students have free rein back on campus.

Duggan says: “Part-time MBA students are usually employed in jobs they want to keep. Full-time students are at a moment in their lives when they want to take a year off and find a new direction. They want to do something intensively. I support both approaches, but they are suitable for different kinds of people.”

Whether GSB students, studying full- or part-time, will be able to return to campus in 2022 is still uncertain. Duggan hopes there will be a “significant” level of face-to-face classroom teaching, but observes: “I can’t say for certain we will be able to do X, Y or Z next year.”

The sooner classroom teaching resumes, the sooner the school will be able to recruit foreign students again. Cape Town has always been a popular destination for northern hemisphere students, but their numbers have plummeted because of Covid travel restrictions. Duggan is anxious for both them and African students from outside SA’s borders to return in numbers.

When they do, they are likely to find a modernised MBA. Duggan says she and new programme director Mignon Reyneke have undertaken a “refreshing” of the MBA. The shift to online and virtual education over the past 1½ years has created the opportunity for changes “that weren’t always possible when people weren’t familiar with digital engagements”.

One beneficiary will be the global module. Students will be able to engage virtually with people, companies and governments around the world. “They will have the opportunity to see all kinds of things in ways that were not possible before but can now be integrated into the programme,” says Duggan. “I’ve seen it work very well elsewhere, and it’s an exciting opportunity to use technology to add value and create a new experience.”

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