It is Time for Business Schools to Practise What They Preach

The Value of Universities

The world of higher education is changing. Several trends are emerging and converging that will have an impact on the future of business education. One trend of shifting the power from higher education providers to the student means that students have an increasing expectation for mass customisation in their learning experiences, and a belief that business schools will “know” them and be able to meet their needs with Amazon-like data and insights. Another developing trend is the growth of alternative educational credentials that are increasingly being recognised by employers. These new micro-credentials, such as a nano-degree from Udacity, a specialisation from Coursera, or an e-portfolio on LinkedIn, challenge our long-held belief in the value of a traditional university degree. A final trend is the rising number of partnerships being formed between business schools and corporations or other institutions. For example, San Jose State University partnered with IBM to create a program to help students learn about social business and prepare them for the workforce. These and other evolving trends mean that business schools will need to alter their approaches from “business as usual” to being increasingly more responsive to evolving student and employer needs. To remain relevant for the future, business schools will need to: 

  1. Explore how to use technologies and data analytics to allow for mass personalisation of academic programmes.
  2. Develop alternative pathways to meet changing student needs and to help graduates build skills and obtain jobs.
  3. Explore opportunities to collaborate among themselves and with other institutions.  

Students today have many market substitutes to choose from, and the belief that students favour reputation over all other factors is dissipating. Students are seeking more options and the “one-size-fits-all” model no longer meets their desire and need for greater mobility and connectivity. Students expect their educational provider to understand their needs and anticipate their wants in the same way that Amazon and other service providers know their clients and personalise content to meet their requirements. Additionally, since students are studying and learning everywhere, business schools must consider where, when and how business curricula will be delivered. Business schools must evolve from the current model of educational delivery to meet changing market needs and student (and other stakeholder) expectations.

Alternative credentials such as digital badges, certificates and micro-credentials are gaining traction in the workplace. According to a study from University Professional and Continuing Education Association, Pennsylvania State University and Pearson, millennial students seem to prefer badging and certificate programs to traditional bachelor’s degrees. According to the report, alternative credentials are offered by 94% of the institutions profiled, one in five institutions offers digital badges, and digital badges are most commonly offered in business-related domains. Additionally, a 2014 study by the United States Census Bureau revealed that 30% of the adult population holds an alternative credential. Clearly, student preferences are moving in the direction of alternatives to traditional university degrees and this area of high-demand education delivery may be captured by more adroit private-sector organisations, unless business schools can increase the speed with which they adapt and evolve.

One trend which offers a great deal of excitement for enhancing the relevance of business education is increased partnerships with corporations and other organisations. For example, Arizona State University partnered with Starbucks to launch the innovative College Achievement Plan, introduced in June 2014, as the first-of-its-kind partnership that creates an opportunity for all eligible American Starbucks employees to earn their bachelor’s degree with full tuition coverage all four years through Arizona State University’s top-ranked online degree program. The telecommunications company AT&T, which launched the AT&T University for Leadership Development, has partnerships with a number of prestigious American institutions such as Georgia Tech, University of Oklahoma and Notre Dame. Increasingly, corporate partners not only continue to recruit business school graduates, but they also tap higher education resources to help their employees develop and progress. Evolving business schools will increasingly have opportunities to create specialised programs for diverse employee populations.

A multiplex of themes, ideas and questions will shape the landscape of business schools moving forward. However, the future belongs to business schools that have a clear vision and can take the lead as change agents. The institutions that stand the best chance of achieving success will be those that listen to the market, introduce innovative curricula that meet market needs, explore a variety of programme delivery options (online, classroom and blended), and proactively create partnerships with business. As we move forward into a future of our own design, business schools have to be willing to engage in discussions and collaborations to enhance and communicate the power of business education, and the importance and value we offer today and tomorrow.

Professor Steve Williams
Professor and Dean 
Sunway University Business School

Originally published in The Edge, January 2017