Pathway to the bigger picture
The MBA, more market-savvy than ever, is not just the ultimate business qualification, it is the ticket to new perspectives. NZBusiness reviews the MBA marketplace, talks to graduates, and presents a Guide to programmes for 2010. By Glenn Baker.
|The MBA is a life-changing experience. Approached with the right attitude and work ethic, and timed perfectly, this degree can provide the confidence-boosting knowledge and contacts to lift your business performance to a whole new level. Your family, friends and business colleagues will notice the almost immediate improvement in your outlook – and you will view business in a whole new global context.
With things generally quiet on the economic front – it’s little wonder that New Zealand’s MBA providers have experienced big increases in the number of enrolments this year.
The Manukau Institute of Technology (MIT), which has delivered the Southern Cross University MBA and DBA as supported distance learning programmes for the past ten years, has experienced record enrolments for its first two trimesters. Other universities we spoke to for this article also report increased enrolments. AUT’s EFT (Equivalent Full Time) students are up 38 percent on this time last year, and 50 percent up on 2007. The only restraint on numbers is the capping on Government funding and class size restrictions.
To gain an accurate picture of what’s happening in the MBA space, a good place to start is the MBA Agency website (www.thembaagency.com) – the home of the ‘WebGuide to New Zealand MBA Programmes’. Publisher Regena Mitchell reports that while total enrolments were up to 1310 in 2008, there was also the smallest number of graduates since she began keeping track in 1996. Just 363 received their coveted degrees – well below the 400 average.
“People seem to be staying longer and taking more time to go through the programme,” says Mitchell. “It was also interesting to note that seats exceeded demand by 36 percent in 2008, across the board.” That’s clearly not the case in 2009.
Other observations from Mitchell include an increase in part-time students, a growth in Auckland-delivered programmes, and a very low number of people dropping out. “This could be taken as a sign that the MBA is getting too easy – although the average drop-out rate has remained static at seven percent for many years.”
So why the sudden upsurge in interest in the MBA?
Ken Lee, MBA director at the Business School Faculty of Business and Law, AUT University, suggests one of the key factors as being the current cycle of uncertainty, the bleak outlook for the remainder of the year and the slow economic recovery ahead. “People are concluding that if they want to compete for the best jobs their education credentials are more important than ever. There appears to be a direct relationship between economic downturn and study uptake.”
Another reason for the MBA’s popularity is the matching of curriculum with new and emerging requirements in managerial competencies. Lee says the AUT curricular is ahead on this front, with a stronger emphasis in areas such as entrepreneurship, leadership, decision-making, HR, sustainability and business ethics. He also says it’s about striking a balance between these issues, skills and concepts and the basic business disciplines, and maintaining a flexible approach going forward.
John Tucker, MBA director at the University of Waikato Management School, believes the curriculum trend towards the soft skills of management, including a more in-depth coverage of business sustainability and ethics, will continue.
“This is driven by the global fallout from the finance sector, and the recognition of the need to operate ethically and for the best interests of all stakeholders and the planet. This will intensify as a new business model emerges in a global context and climate change gains greater focus.”
Making your mind up on which MBA programme is best for you is absolutely vital. And it’s no easy feat – New Zealand has 11 institutions offering various MBA options, including University of Canterbury and University of Otago in the South Island.
Peter Withers, director of Academic Programmes at the University of Auckland Business School, suggests you first answer three simple questions:
• Why am I doing this? (Is it for promotion, money, the diploma itself, time out?)
• How committed am I?
• Who do I want to be sitting next to? (Because you’ll be learning a lot from your fellow students.)
Entry criteria varies – although no provider opens its MBA doors for just anyone. There is reputation at stake here, and the Universities jealously guard their programme branding. It was also pointed out to me that while the current economic difficulties may have increased the number of applicants, they’re not necessarily a better standard of applicant.
In recognition of the diversity of applicants’ backgrounds, The University of Auckland now offers two MBA programmes. Withers says The New Zealand Executive MBA attracts senior executives from all over the country. The average age is 40 and they are high achievers with significant local and international business experience.
The Auckland MBA targets younger mid-career applicants with an average age of 32, minimum five years experience – and classes held one or two evenings a week over the duration of the programme.
Withers says both MBA programmes were over-subscribed in June and the stakes are high. The programmes are not about ‘bums on seats’ or driving revenue – entry standards are rigorous and students are expected to fully engage in the learning opportunities, he says. “We work hard to select the right candidates – and much depends on attitude and maturity.”
If your preference is for supported distance learning, perhaps off-shore, then there are just two options available in New Zealand – the Henley Executive MBA, delivered through the Henley Business School, and the Southern Cross University MBA. These offer great flexibility for students, and as Wayne Dreyer NZ director MBA/DBA at the MIT points out, students like the fact that they can just get on with the assignments and exams and don’t have to go to classes (although they are encouraged to attend workshops).
“Choosing a programme is all about matching your learning style, as well as meeting your professional and personal demands.”
Dreyer describes the Southern Cross MBA as ‘the paperless MBA’ because all assignments and assessments are totally handled online. (It’s also worth remembering that this particular MBA is not eligible for New Zealand student funding, as it is Australian sourced.)
Meanwhile, some Universities offer their programmes from multiple locations. Massey University, for example, has centres in Auckland, Palmerston North, Wellington and Christchurch.
Jonathan Matheny, MBA programme leader at the Massey University College of Business recommends that intending students look at the level of responsiveness of both lecturers and the people running the programme. “Consider the level of practicality in the offering, is it practical or buried in academia? And does it provide the opportunity for students to generate their own knowledge, to ‘think for themselves’? The knowledge must be portable, not confined to the classroom,” he says.
Mobility is another factor, says Matheny. Will the programme accommodate a change of circumstances? “I know of two Hamilton-based students – one studies in our Auckland stream and the other with our Christchurch group. Today’s mid to senior manager operates nationwide, and our MBA delivery has to reflect this.”
An MBA is a major investment, so when choosing a programme it’s advisable to talk to recent graduates, take your time, sit in on some classes, and consider who you’ll be learning with.
“If you’re looking for that richer, rounder learning experience, it matters who else is in the classroom,” says the University of Auckland’s Peter Withers. “That’s why we offer two programmes – because people who’re in the mid-stage of their career operate within different parameters and should not be put in the same room as senior executives. Look for like-minded company.”
Navigating your way through
Do the hard yards and you can have every confidence of success. That’s the advice from AUT’s Ken Lee. Completion rates and pass rates are high with MBAs (96 percent and 90-plus percent respectively at AUT) because students are “incredibly focused”, and yes, they’ve made a serious up-front investment in their future.
“It’s also a huge emotional and time investment for supporting families, partners and friends as well,” says Lee. “That’s why we invite family and partners to our orientation functions – to explain that their support is crucial for those inevitable late nights.
“Expect to actively engage with your peers and lecturers. Expect to take responsibility for your learning, and challenge the status quo. And expect to apply critical analysis in practical situations if you’re chasing top grades,” adds Lee. You’ll need to learn to think strategically and holistically about business and develop the softer skills of management – such as negotiating job contracts, problem solving and presentation. At AUT they are also developing a programme of personal and professional development to complement the rigour of the academic programme.
Be clear on your motives, your commitment, and be comfortable on your timing, the programme and the class atmosphere, says Peter Withers. Get your attitude right from the outset, be disciplined in your study and your obligations to your study groups. Engage teaching staff early on, especially if you’re having initial doubts.
“Remember, it’s your responsibility to grasp this learning opportunity.”
Regena Mitchell’s advice includes making friends and developing robust relationships with fellow students who have skills in areas other than yours. “Working with others who have skills and expertise in areas different from your own will serve you well – in the short term, as well as the long. When times are tough, it’s your friends who will help to get you through.”