Tech is up as tomorrow’s students switch MBA likes

Course designers get warning as tech management – and more personalised learning – continue climbing the list while entrepreneurship tumbles steeply, with fewer potential students showing interest in starting their own business

John Cremer UPDATED :

Business schools offering MBA courses should pay close attention to the findings of a recent survey which provides important insights into the views and preferences of prospective students.

The “Tomorrow’s MBA” report, based on feedback from just over 1,200 respondents across 39 countries, sheds light on key trends and developments in postgraduate business education.

But it also threw up a number of surprises, which will give course designers and administrators pause for thought as they consider how best to meet the needs, and respond to the expectations, of future intakes.

Those taking part in the study, which for the eighth time was conducted by CarringtonCrisp in association with EFMD, the European Foundation for Management Development, were asked to rank possible MBA topics from most to least valuable.

The results showed leadership, at 26.7 per cent, and strategy, at 17.9 per cent, once again topping the charts as the subjects regarded as “most valuable”. But the real eye-opener was technology management, which jumped to equal second on this year’s list, also with 17.9 per cent, and the fact that entrepreneurship has fallen out of the top three and is down to eighth place this time around, reflecting its score of 14.7 per cent.

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“The increasing interest in technology management has been an emerging trend over the last few years,” says the report’s author, Andrew Crisp. “Students are very aware that technology now features heavily in most industries and, without a good understanding of it, their career options are going to be limited.”

He notes, though, that most business schools are already alert to this development. As a result, they are taking steps – some faster than others – to include more tech-related content in their MBA programmes. This can either be as a subject in itself or in courses specific to an industry such as fintech.

Other subjects ranked among the top eight most valuable were project management, with 16.3 per cent, while marketing and international business both got 15.5 per cent. Just behind them came risk management, with 15.3 per cent.

“It is too early to say whether the decline in interest in entrepreneurship is a major trend, but it is certainly something to watch, bearing in mind the focus many business schools have been putting on entrepreneurship and start-ups,” Crisp says.

He notes, though, that findings elsewhere in the report appear to confirm this fall in popularity. For instance, the percentage of respondents who said their main reason for wanting to study for an MBA was to start a business fell from 24.6 per cent in 2017 to 20.8 per cent in the latest exercise. In this context, that can be viewed as quite a significant drop.

“It seems that students are keen to have the skills to be part of the technology start-up scene, but may be less inclined to lead a start-up themselves,” Crisp says. “Looked at another way, headlines about the growing presence on campus of recruiters from tech companies like Amazon may also have encouraged the growing interest in technology management [and put it ahead of entrepreneurship].”

According to the survey, prospective students also have clear views about the subjects they currently regard as least valuable. Working from the bottom up, they were found to be ethics, which scored 4.4 per cent, followed by corporate governance and managing luxury brands, which both came in at 5.2 per cent.

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Slightly above these subjects we find change management and courses on private equity or venture capital, with both categories getting a less than spectacular 5.4 per cent rating. “We can see that personalisation is another growing trend in higher education,” Crisp says. “So, schools looking to attract a more diverse cohort need to remember that one size doesn’t fit all when designing their MBA courses.”

In other respects, he notes that it has become more difficult to know what is going on in the overall MBA marketplace. Some overviews suggest that, broadly speaking, programmes are in good health and demand for places is more than holding up. But alternative sources may then put forward a case indicating, for example, that the numbers of international students at business schools in the US are declining by more than a quarter year-on-year.

In these circumstances, he adds, an MBA director or the dean of a business school could be forgiven for having doubts when deciding on policy and priorities. “If you add in the changing patterns of demand, variations in the type of content future students want to see, the growing interest in personalisation, and the continuing preference for greater specialisation, it is fair to say that the MBA market is uncertain,” Crisp says.

“In this sense, the rapidly changing labour market is causing further problems. Changes in the workplace will mean employees need to update their skills more often than in the past. Consequently, the return on investment from studying an MBA may not come quickly enough to make it value for money. And prospective students may decide to acquire the skills employers want from sources other than business schools.”