As the Business School World Changes, the Band Plays On

As the B-School World Changes, the Band Plays On

Perhaps the time has come for the great and the good of the business school community to acknowledge that the sector can’t expand forever simply on momentum.

Just in case we haven’t had quite enough bad news lately, here’s some more: The word on the streets is that applications to business schools for that flagship of the management education world—the MBA program—are dropping off across the U.S. and in Europe.

At the beginning of September, Bloomberg Businessweek’s Alison Damast reported that at least a dozen major schools, including names such as Columbia Business School, NYU’s Stern School, Chicago’s Booth School and Duke’s Fuqua School, have seen dips in applications. Across the Atlantic, traditionally buoyant business-education markets such as Spain and the U.K. are also diminishing—the latter partly due to a tightening of visa policy in 2012. Globally, the only region that seems to be bucking the trend is Asia.

Perhaps the time has come for the great and the good of the business school community to acknowledge that the sector can’t expand forever simply on momentum.

Rather than sitting and waiting for something to “turn up,” like some modern day Mr. Micawber (a fictional character from Dickens’s David Copperfield who ends up in debtors’ prison when nothing does turn up), a number of schools in Europe—particularly in some of the continent’s less-well-known corners—have been taking radical steps to re-evaluate what business education should be about and why someone should choose to buy it.

An early example came in 2009, when Netherlands-based Nyenrode decided that if its international MBA program were to compete on a long-term basis, ramping up marketing and tinkering with course content would not suffice. Instead the school took what some predicted would amount to a suicidal step by shutting its program down completely. Nyenrode spent a year rebuilding before relaunching in September 2010. That strategy’s boldness seems to have paid off, with the program since going from strength to strength.

Perhaps there is something in the air in the Benelux countries of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg because an additional school in the area has been pondering the future of business education, too—and has embraced a complete re-branding with a change of name and a move to Europe’s political heart. The newly minted Vlerick Business School spent two years asking everyone from students, alumni, and staff to journalists and even other schools where it should be going and how; the result is not just a different identity, but a redesigned MBA and executive curricula, greater alumni engagement, a campus in Brussels, and further development of its teaching in Russia and China. The thinking behind all this seems to be that in the face of an uncertain global economy and ever-increasing competition, standing still is not an option. An institution must either challenge the market or slip into obscurity.

How is this different from program changes and re-branding that have recently taken place in the U.S.? The Harvard Business School, for example, has implemented a plan to send more students than ever before to study overseas, and the Wharton School has introduced its “Knowledge for Action” campaign, while last summer the Kellogg School of Management introduced its weighty (if not particularly snappy) ‘Think Bravely: We believe that business can be bravely led, passionately collaborative and world changing.”

For me, what differentiates the European approach, as embodied in Vlerick’s re-branding, is a willingness to at least consider changing everything. My crystal ball for the future of business education is as foggy as the next one, but I think the school has a point when it says that advancements in technology and shifting global influence will paralyze some schools and bring new concepts, new markets, and new opportunities to others.

So couldn’t other schools go further? Confidence is one thing. Certainty in an increasingly uncertain world is quite another. Business schools need to be open for discussion and to be prepared to reinvent themselves. Those that stop at having tinkered with curriculum, or with re-branding in words alone, might end up looking as if they had rearranged the deck chairs on the RMS Titanic.

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