Ahmed Shaikh

Ahmed Shaikh

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FM Edition:

It was forecast to be the biggest catastrophe in the history of education. Bigger even than the Mongol destruction of Baghdad’s extraordinary House of Wisdom in the 13th century.

So, nearly one year into its existence, has SA’s new MBA regime been as destructive as some predicted?

When government’s Council on Higher Education (CHE) announced that the local MBA qualification would be upgraded to a master’s degree from the honours level where it officially sat previously, the implications were considerable. Ordinary bachelor’s graduates, who traditionally made up more than half of SA’s annual MBA intake, would no longer qualify to study.

Instead, new students would require a specialist four-year bachelor’s, an honours or an appropriate postgraduate qualification. The only exceptions would be a group known as RPLs, short for "recognition of prior learning". Schools were allowed to reserve up to 10% of places for such people, mostly black, without the necessary academic qualifications but with the business and management experience required to handle an MBA programme.

The upshot of all this, said the doubters, would be a drop in MBA student numbers. Former Cape Town University Graduate School of Business (GSB) director Walter Baets, never one to downplay an issue, warned of possible "disaster", including damage to the reputation of SA business schools, if hundreds of would-be students, including many from other countries, suddenly found their study path blocked.

For all business schools, part of the solution was straightforward: increase their capacity to offer a business-related postgraduate diploma, or PGDip. This one-year "halfway-house" qualification would entitle successful students to go straight on to the MBA proper.

But would students be prepared to commit to an extra year? Most full-time MBAs last one year, while the duration of part-time ones can be anywhere from two to five years. The extra study time and allied cost, it was argued, could be a deal breaker for many students.

For full-time MBAs, there’s little scope for compromise. It’s one programme after another. But for part-time MBAs, some schools have compressed the PGDip and the MBA into the same period the MBA alone once took. At Durban’s Regent Business School, for example, director Ahmed Shaikh says the old MBA took 30 months but the new one for students who have successfully completed a one-year PGDip is 18 months.

With a little content tweaking, the PGDip can effectively become the first year of the MBA. "In some respects, it makes teaching easier," says Owen Skae, director of the Rhodes University Business School. Compared with traditional MBA students, who have often not studied for several years before enrolling at business school, "PGDip students have a running start when it comes to the formal MBA programme." Shaikh adds: "They are more effective students."

Skae admits he was nervous about the impact on admissions of the new MBA rules. But in fact, numbers of both MBA and PGDip acceptances exceeded expectations.

At Stellenbosch University Business School, MBA programme head Martin Butler says it’s not just the MBA programme that’s benefiting. "We see interesting trends, with students crossing from the PGDip not only to the MBA, but also to other master’s programmes."

Some other schools also report higher than expected numbers.

"We were oversubscribed," admits Cape Town GSB MBA head Segran Nair. Reassuringly for a school with a high percentage of foreign MBA students, many of them from the northern hemisphere, overseas applications have held up well.

Even where MBA numbers are down, PGDip registrations suggest it won’t be for long. Milpark Business School director Cobus Oosthuizen says that as the market settles into the new system, "the MBA pipeline will regenerate itself".

Fortunately, says Management College of Southern Africa’s (Mancosa) Zaheer Hamid, last year’s fears that the changes had not been explained properly to the market have proved mostly unjustified. "It knows what’s going on. There will always be apprehension before a changeover, and yes, there was an initial degree of confusion and lack of information. But a few months in, it’s pretty calm."

There are still some surprises. Graduates who think their four-year bachelor’s degrees will qualify them automatically for an MBA programme may be disappointed. At Pretoria University’s Gordon Institute of Business Science (Gibs), graduates who did not complete their degree in the past five years will have to do a PGDip or an honours. Other schools say they accept such students on a case-by-case basis.

The new MBA system is having an impact elsewhere. Helena van Zyl, director of the Free State University Business School, says companies that have traditionally sponsored employees on MBA programmes are looking carefully at the extra costs of combined PGDip-MBA study. If it’s a choice between the two, they prefer the former. "We find that sponsors are no longer very generous with regard to the MBA."

Her view is mirrored in market research for Ranking The MBAs. Of 300 companies questioned, fewer than half say they will sponsor the same number of MBAs as before. Only 12% say they will sponsor employees for both PGDip and MBA.

Nearly all schools are running both old and new MBAs, which has caused some employer confusion. Programmes that started in 2015 and before, offering the old honours-level MBA, will continue to their conclusion as normal. Tommy du Plessis, director of the North-West University School of Business & Governance, says his school has set an end-2018 deadline for completion.

Some others, however, have yet to launch the new programme, and still offer the old. CHE CEO Narend Baijnath says higher education minister Blade Nzimande has decided schools will be allowed to continue enrolling students in the old programme until the end of 2019, meaning that the last graduations could take place as late as 2023. In reality, those schools that have not already made the full transition say they will do so as soon as possible.

In the short term, they say there’s no hardship in running parallel programmes. Because of the PGDip preparation, "the second year of our old MBA is almost identical to the first of the new", says Gibs dean Nicola Kleyn. "The teaching rhythms are the same."

Where there are challenges, they tend to be of a practical nature. Nair says that because the new MBA is a true master’s, student dissertations (theses) are now treated differently. "They have to go before the university’s higher degrees committee," he says. "The old one didn’t need that; it was handled within the school."

Many business schools have looked upon the new regime less as an imposition than as an opportunity to take a fresh look at their MBA values and goals. Butler says: "It has allowed us to rethink our entire product portfolio and design a fresh MBA programme that builds on past strengths and takes advantage of opportunities to include the latest in business thinking." Schools have adjusted core and elective programmes and their contribution towards total MBA credits.

One thing that hasn’t changed at most schools is the attitude towards the MBA dissertation. Because it is a professional master’s, this research is allowed to take a more practical direction than a traditional academic thesis. It may consist of a single research or technical project or a series of smaller projects.

Nearly all schools have rejected the series in favour of a single, defined piece of work.

Some, like Mancosa, want it to be very practical. "It has to be based in the student’s organisation or industry," says Hamid. "There has to be a current business challenge. That way, it’s alive to the student."

Theuns Pelser, director of the University of KwaZulu Natal’s Graduate School of Business & Leadership, says: "I believe there is limited value in mini-dissertations. I want to see real research, with depth."

Shaikh adds that students intending to pursue further studies, such as a doctorate, benefit from the intensity of a single piece of work.

Kleyn adds: "We aim for that sweet spot where research solves a problem but is also academic — where it goes beyond a kind of consultancy service.

"Our students start out not wanting to do this kind of dissertation but they admit later that they get enormous value from it. Done properly with rigour, it can be a turning point in their careers."