Tuesday, June 28, 2011

What Quality Means for An MBA Programme?

I am forced to think what quality means for an education programme through my day-to-day activities to develop and establish a high 'quality' MBA programme. The interactions with the Academic team tells me that better quality means greater resource allocation, more people, more computers, more books for the library etc. This may be correct up to a point and reflect the realities of the programme management, where one battle you want to win is the battle for the budgets. However, I am not convinced that once the resources are sorted out, 'quality' will happen itself. On the contrary, I have started believing that quality of a programme may not be linked to resources at all, once an adequate level of resources have been allocated. The example I shall use here is that there is an optimal class size. Let's say we throw more resources and reduce our class sizes from 30 to 20: I am unlikely to believe that this will mean better quality of the programme. Same goes for underutilized computers or unread library books; while this may create a perception of quality, more resources do not necessarily mean a better programme.

The other aspect of quality we discuss a lot is about meeting the requirements of accreditation. However, I am also not convinced that ticking the boxes will itself guarantee quality; these may be measures, however appropriate, about the quality system, but these measures are not be all and end all. In fact, I shall argue that focusing too much on these measures can make you lose sight of the task of enhancing quality of the programme altogether.

So, I am back at the textbook definition of quality in a commercial context: Deliver what's written on the tin. However, while this would have been the easiest way to view quality, I have come to realize that the students come to view quality very differently. For them, it is not important what was written, but what they read into it. From my discussions with students, this was more about the MBA being worthwhile, which essentially meant that they get a decent job after they have achieved the qualification and this has, if they have been employed before, resulted in an increase of salary.

Also, the employers see the quality of the MBA programme as one demonstrated by the students' employability. This means the students are equipped with the technical and interpersonal skills necessary in a business. This is quite close to the students' perception, the crucial difference being the 'soft' knowledge, the interpersonal bit. Most students in my experience wouldn't want to waste time on these 'woolly' subjects. While the employers think they are crucial, and most criticism about the MBA programmes emanate from their lack of 'practical' skills, students' perception of quality of an MBA programme are closely connected to the 'real' content of the programme.

There was an attempt to do a Competency-based model for an MBA programme, primarily by Porter and others in the USA. However, the subject benchmark statements by Britain's QAA stick to more academic percepts of quality: Content, delivery and student experience etc.

In fact, none of these should be problematic - as all these should tie around a programme which is developed for the market requirements and delivered in a practical context. But more often than not, certain things are lost in translation between the workplace and the classroom. Like medicine, MBA is a vocational qualification, and the turf war between education and training is quite apparent in designing the MBA agenda. QAA wants MBA graduates to 'critically evaluate', the employers want them to 'practically apply' and 'think on their feet': They should be similar things, but they are not.

And, finally, there is student experience, which brings all the other things, service, promptness and all those things, in the mix. This is wooliness at its best: Universities try to fill the gap by plugging in odd visits to exotic business locations (how about going to Prague for a course in International Management, or to Bavaria for a Financial Analysis course) and by working out service level guidance which are still closely tied to their unchanging bureaucracies. For future managers, being able to fire their errant or sloppy tutors may be the only practical measure of experience, but most colleges will stop short of that and draw the line.

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