Monday, November 28, 2011

Quality and Profits: The Quest for Quality for an MBA programme in a For-Profit Business School


This essay intends to explore the issue of educational quality in the context of a For-Profit Business School based in London. This is a privately owned business, which offers a Master of Business Administration (MBA) programme validated by a British university, and caters to mostly students coming from overseas.

The school has no degree awarding power and has to follow the academic regulations of the validating university. The MBA degree is awarded by the validating university after the students successfully complete 8 taught modules and a dissertation.

The Business School had to undergo an extensive review of its financial and academic capabilities to achieve validation to deliver the MBA programme. The validation was achieved following a well-defined university process. The university took great care to look at the financial records and management practices of the institution, as part of their initial vetting visit, and following this, the course, proposed by the business school, was assessed against the Subject Benchmarks published the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA).

After the validation, the Business School was free to recruit students. The school’s activity was monitored by the University regularly. The process of monitoring is represented in Figure 2 below. Such monitoring primarily focused on three main areas – Admissions, Education Delivery and Assessments. The university indeed maintained a close monitoring system, with the appointment of external examiners who vetted all assessments and a moderator, who had oversight of education delivery and assessment processes.

The university set the admission criteria, and the students needed a good first degree, proof of English Language competence at the appropriate level, and at least two years of working experience, to get admitted to the MBA programme. The students, mostly from overseas, would usually approach one of the agents or offices of the Business School abroad to submit their applications. After the students’ suitability have been reviewed by the Admissions team, the applications are then passed on to the MBA Admissions Committee, which included the college representatives as well as the Programme Moderator from the university. The committee would assess the students’ suitability for the programme before a confirmed offer is made.

On the education delivery, all tutors have to be approved by the university validation team before teaching in the programme. The facilities and student services at the Business School are regularly reviewed, and regular suggestions were made for improvement. Different feedback mechanisms, the end-of-course feedback, student-staff liaison meetings, were put in place. University representatives interviewed the students during the inspection visits. A Joint Board of Studies was periodically convened to review the experiences of the programme and to recommend enhancements or modifications.

On Assessments, University appointed external examiners who approved all the assessments and reviewed the marking. They attended the assessment boards along with all internal assessors, and confirmed the results. The assessment board was chaired by the Programme Moderator, a senior academician appointed by the University, and would be attended by all external examiners and examiners appointed by the Business School involved in marking the papers.

The programme was very successful for the Business School. It was profitable, and a large number of students were recruited in the programme. The student recruitment numbers for the Business School is given below in Table 1.
Table 1: Intakes & Number of Students

Number of students
  Source: Business School records



The student numbers exceeded those that the Business School management projected, and the school had to renegotiate its contract with the university to accommodate the larger number of students. This also led to a ‘quality’ problem, which had to be addressed through significant expansion of resources to meet the demand. 

This essay starts from the point of this perceived ‘quality problem’, which the validating university pointed out and the Business School resolved to its satisfaction. It would be argued that a narrow process-based or resource-based view of quality blurs the multi-faceted and complex nature of the issue, and in fact leads to a certain disregard of what should be the aim of an educational experience.

The Quality Problem

The management of the Business School faced a real dilemma in August 2009. Traditionally, a large proportion of the students in the Business School had come from South Asia, with India alone contributing more than 40% of the student population. The Indian students will traditionally come to do Professional Accounting courses, which this school was good at doing. However, their interests in the MBA programme were limited: They somehow preferred Australian schools, which had a good marketing presence in large Indian cities. However, in August 2009, Australia was getting very poor press in India, because of a number of race-hate incidents against Indian students in Melbourne and Sydney. Faced with persistent criticism in Indian media, Australian Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, tried to brush these off as isolated criminal incidents, causing a diplomatic row and drawing even greater publicity.

This led to a sudden surge in application for the MBA programme in the Business School. This was happening to almost all UK colleges and universities at the time, so much so that the UK Home Office relaxed the UK student visa requirements to take advantage of the surge in application.

The key issue facing the management of the school was that while the MBA programme, then in its second year, has been going well, the school did not have much capacity to handle the student surge. The contracted number with the validating university was only 60 students per year. The physical capacity was inadequate, and the tutoring team could handle only up to a certain number of students.

While physical capacity was a problem, competitive landscape was changing very fast. Newer colleges with spare capacity were accepting the students who have been turned down for the lack of capacity elsewhere. This was a competitive nightmare: By turning down the students, the Business School was creating its own competitors.

It is at this juncture that the management of the Business School decided to invest in creating capacity and ‘innovate’ in Education delivery. A formal request for expanding the contracted numbers was made to the validating university. A new management team was recruited, along with a number of qualified tutors. The Business School went ahead and leased an additional 38,000 square feet of space and created classrooms and facilities for the incoming students. All of this was achieved, as was only possible in a dynamic private business, within a period of three months. The students could come and commence their classes in a shiny new facility.

There were some issues, however, where the management of the school decided to seek more innovative solutions. Library, for example, was one such area. Cognizant that even the new premises will allow little space for reading rooms etc., the Business School sought out a deal with a leading Academic publisher to create custom text books. The books, produced under the editorship of an eminent economist, compiled a number of chapters from standard text books, held together by a commentary written by tutors of each of the modules. These books were intended to serve as a Knowledge-base for students to refer to during the programme, and each student was issued a set of books covering all the modules they have to do.

Besides, as the teaching load of the tutoring team was set to increase, the Business School invested in an Online Learning platform and licensed learning content from the academic publishers to be provided online. The students were also given access to an Online Library, and a team was appointed to coordinate with tutors to upload the learning materials on an ongoing basis.

Reflecting back, the senior managers of the Business School today regard this expansion project as a major victory, a clear example how the Private Sector, unhindered by the process requirements of various kinds, could respond quickly and decisively to emergent opportunities. On the issue of quality, they define this as the attainment of promises made to the students – in this case, a ‘great student experience’, ‘meeting the learning objectives’ and ‘being employable’ – which, they regard, their timely intervention with enhanced resources helped to achieve.

However, at the time, the university was not happy with this development, though. While they indicated that they are ready to increase the contracted numbers to a certain higher level, they indicated that they would need at least 3 months’ notice before they could validate a new learning facility. They were unhappy that the Business School moved the students, however good was the facility, before a validation could take place. They were also not comfortable with the increased number of students as they were unable to appoint external examiners quick enough.

Eventually, these issues will be resolved with time and the university will approve, even commend, the Business School’s marketing prowess and decisive action. Indeed, this particular business school became one of most profitable operations of the validation unit, and a sort of showcase for other partnering schools.

Reflecting back on the events, the University moderator pointed out that adhering to the processes laid down should be the foremost objectives of quality assurance. ‘The processes are there for a purpose’, he would write, ‘and these processes have known to ensure quality in education delivery in other similar settings’.  In general, he would define quality as adherence to set norms, which were well researched and ‘benchmarked’, because these were known to have ‘delivered a high-quality student experience’.

All About Outcome

In both the cases above, the resource based and process based views of educational quality center around the ‘student experience’. However, the students, when interviewed, seem to value outcome more than either the resources available or processes followed.

For the purpose of this essay, a sample of 30 MBA students were requested to fill out a questionnaire on what they think constitute ‘quality’ in the MBA programme they were attending. They were given six statements and were expected to indicate the ones, which were important to them for judging the quality of the programme. The  outcome of this survey is summarized below in Table 2.

Table 2: Students’ Perception of Quality

                           Respondents (Percentage)
The programme will prepare me for a suitable job
                               28 (93%)

The programme will help me attain a well recognized qualification

                              24 (80%)

The Programme will allow me opportunities to work in the UK

                              24 (80%)

The Programme will offer good teaching on current business topics

                             15 (50%)

The programme will enhance my personal skills and abilities even if they are not directly related to the subjects taught

                               9 (30%)

The programme offers all the resources that I need to complete my studies effectively

                               9 (30%)

Following this survey, two respondents were also interviewed at length to arrive at a greater understanding what ‘quality’ meant to them. While respondents differed on what they expected out of the MBA programme, they were in agreement that as long as the programme leads to a suitable job, the resources were ‘not that important’, and processes ‘could vary’.

These responses were of interest for another reason. They don’t just diverge from what the school thinks ‘quality’ is, and what the awarding university define ‘quality’ as, they also diverge from what a prospective employer will think quality of an MBA programme is. A similar survey of 10 employers, who have employed graduates from the validating university (and some from this Business School in particular), reflect a somewhat different set of priorities. Table 3 summarizes the responses.

Table 3: Employers’ Perception of Quality

                     Respondents (Percentage)
The programme will enhance the candidate’s ability to critically analyze business problems and handle uncertainty
                         10 (100%)

The programme offers candidates good teaching on current business topics
                         10 (100%)

The programme offers the candidates suitable resources to enhance their skills and knowledge

                          8 (80%)

The programme will prepare the candidate for a suitable job

                          5 (50%)

The Programme will allow candidates skills required to work in the UK

                         4 (40%)

The programme will help the candidates attain a well recognized qualification

                         3 (30%)

Longer interviews with two of these employers also pointed out some of their major concerns with the MBA graduates: Their tendency to seek privilege on account of their qualification, their lack of enthusiasm to learn at work and their inability to integrate in a team. It seems that while the students mainly adopt an Outcome-based definition of ‘Quality’, the employers want these outcomes to be linked with real-life skills, and not academic abilities.

Grounded in Practice

QAA seems to have provided a framework within which all these competing aspirations can be reconciled. In its Subject Benchmark Statement (2007), the QAA states that a Masters Degree in Management should have four-fold objectives:

·      “The advanced study of organisations, their management and the changing external context in which they operate
·      Preparation for and/or development of a career in business and management by developing skills at a professional or equivalent level, or as preparation for research or further study in the area
·      Development of the ability to apply knowledge and understanding of business and management to complex issues, both systematically and creatively, to improve business and management practice
·      Enhancement of lifelong learning skills and personal development so as to be able to work with self-direction and originality and to contribute to business and society at large.”
(QAA, 2007)

QAA recognizes the ‘vocational’ nature of the MBA programme and recommends that ‘there is a strong practical and professional orientation to the curriculum and they may be linked to professional institute qualifications’. (QAA, 2007)

Regarding what an MBA programme should achieve, QAA states

“Graduates will have been able to ground their new knowledge within the base of their professional experience. They will be able to reflect on and learn from that prior experience and thus be able to integrate new knowledge with past experience and apply it to new situations. They will be able to challenge preconceptions and to remove subject and functional boundaries so as to handle complex situations holistically. They should also have particular strengths in analysing, synthesising and solving complex unstructured business problems. In addition to being able to communicate their findings, they should have developed the skills to implement agreed solutions effectively and efficiently. They should therefore have strongly developed interpersonal skills and to be able to interact effectively with a range of specialists.” (QAA, 2007)

In a certain way, this integrates various perspectives on Quality. This is the outcome that the university processes are designed to achieve, and this is, even if the students have not explicitly signed up to it at the very start, the promise of an MBA that the Business School has made. The outcome-centric view of the students and employers also revolve around these skill-sets and in a way, the QAA Benchmark statements help bring the two perspectives together.

Quality in Real Life

In a manufacturing business, quality of its products will be defined by its ability to meet ‘explicit and implicit’ requirements of the customer. The Principal of the Business School, when interviewed for this essay, rightly states that this becomes slightly problematic to define who the ‘customer’ of the MBA programme is. The students will be the most likely to fit into this description, since they are paying the fees. However, in Britain, since the education system is largely publicly funded, meeting the QAA benchmarks is considered to be a more important measure of delivering ‘quality’ education. Also, meeting the university’s process requirements is critical for being seen as a ‘Quality Provider’, though this seems little more than ‘ticking the boxes’. Finally, one can equally argue that the employers are the customers, who employ the students and hence define, in an indirect way, what the programme is worth.

Indeed, the five slightly different perspective of quality – the resource-based view of the provider, the process-based view of the validating institution, the outcome-centric view of the students, the practice-oriented view of the employers, and the academic-ability view of the national agencies – do not fully address the ‘implicit’ needs that an MBA programme may serve.

Status, for example, would be one of the implicit needs. During the interviews, the students indicated that they were looking forward to being recognized as MBA graduates by the employers and in their community. In fact, some researchers have indicated that ‘MBA does not yield advertised results’ (Pfeffer and Fong, 2002) and has only ‘selection value’ – ‘a selection mechanism that performs a useful information processing function in the market for managerial talent’. (Moldoveanu and Martin, 2008). Schools often stretch themselves to service the status needs of the students by submitting themselves to various MBA ranking mechanisms, with the expectation that even a mediocre ranking would help service the students’, and employers’, status needs compared to the schools who have no ranking at all. For Ghosal (2005), a critic of the status of the MBA, it cultivates ‘emotional landscapes, actional tendencies and cognitive habits that are counterproductive’ and is therefore, ‘bad for business and society’.

The students also indicate that they chose to do the MBA to be better prepared. The biographical details shared during the interviews indicate that they were not satisfied with their work, or thought their careers have reached a plateau, when they decided to pursue the MBA. Making sense of the world around them was cited as a strong motivating factor for doing an MBA in other studies (Bhandarkar, 2008). The grounding in practice and reflective learning that sits at the heart of the QAA benchmark statement may somewhat run counter to this, when one considers that the business landscapes are changing fast and what one does today may not have any relevance to the future. In fact, this seems to be a persistent criticism of MBA programmes elsewhere.

Looking at these implicit needs of the students and employers, it is useful to refer to Datar et al. (2010), who surveyed MBA programmes across countries and institutions and identified eight unmet needs, ‘many of them related to doing and being’. These are as follows:

1.     Gaining a global perspective – Being able to manage optimally when faced with economic, institutional and cultural differences.
2.     Developing Leadership Skills – Among other things, recognizing the impact of one’s actions and behaviours on others.
3.     Honing integration skills – While analytical skills are stressed upon, building judgement and intuition into messy, unstructured situation get missed out.
4.     Recognizing organizational realities and implementing effectively – Often the rule and model based learning in the MBA programmes run counter to real life organizations, where hidden agendas, political coalitions, unwritten rules and competing points of views play a part.
5.     Acting creatively and innovatively – The learning does not stop at the MBA or getting that job, and the candidate should be able to constantly experiment and learn and engage in generative and lateral thinking.
6.     Thinking critically and communicating effectively – Among other things, distinguishing facts from opinions.
7.     Understanding the role, responsibilities and purpose of business – Balancing financial and non-financial objectives
8.     Understanding the limits of models and markets – Questioning the underlying patterns, interests and assumptions, focusing on social impact and encouraging disruptive thinking


Discussing quality is always problematic: It means different things to different people. However, exploring and understanding various perspectives about educational quality is important, more so in the context of For-Profit education, an emerging phenomenon of sorts in Britain. The current understanding of quality, this essay argues, is inherently limited. While a suitable and exhaustive definition is outside the scope of current enquiry, the tensions are quite apparent even within the scope of this limited research. Some of the questions are quite fundamental, like who should be the ‘customer’ of an educational course: The usual business-like definition of whoever pays for it may not be sufficient or sustainable. In the coming days, as Higher Education ushers into a new competitive future and For-Profits are expected to play a greater role, these questions regarding customers, quality and ‘purpose’ will need to be answered with clarity and conviction.


Bhandarkar, A. (2008), Shaping Business Leaders: What B-Schools Don’t Do, Response Books, New Delhi, India.

Datar, S.M., Garvin, D.A., and Cullen, P.G. (2010), Rethinking the MBA: Business Education at a Crossroads, Harvard Business Press, Boston, MA.

Ghosal, S (2005), Bad management theories are destroying good management practices, Academy of Management Learning and Education, Vol 4 Number 1, pp 75 – 91

Moldoveanu, M.C., and Martin, R.L. (2008), The Future of the MBA: Designing the thinker of the future, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.

Pfeffer, J. and Fong, C. (2002) The end of Business Schools? Less Success than meets the Eye, Academy of Management Learning and Education, Vol. 1, pp 78 – 95

QAA (2007), Masters Degrees in Business and Management, QAA, Mansfield, UK. 

1 comment:

MBA in India said...

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