Lessons of the latest FT MBA rankings

This is my first blog post as Director of Cambridge Judge Business School. Five months into my tenure, I have already spoken with many of our alumni and other interested parties. For example, I have just returned from Abu Dhabi, where I met up with alumni, corporations, government bodies, and the UAE University as a potential partner. But it’s not possible to meet all of you, and I needed another way of telling you about what’s going on at the School. The result is this monthly blog.

So, what’s new? Well, we have a strategy that is emerging – an evolution of what Cambridge Judge has begun in the recent past, rather than a revolution – and I would like to tell you about that. But this is the time of year when the FT Global MBA Rankings are released. Several members of the Alumni Advisory Council suggested that it would be a good idea to comment on these, so we’ll save strategy for next time.

Our MBA programme appears at 26th place in the FT rankings – the same position as last year. Now, we could launch into a microscopic reading of the indicators used to compile the rankings. On the one hand, we did quite well in “Employment after three months”, and “Aims achieved”, as reported by alumni. On the other hand, we did less well in the crucial factors of “Weighted salary (US$)” and “Salary percentage increase”.

We were also marked down in some indicators relating to the School as a whole, such as size of the PhD programme and the percentage of faculty that is female. Putting aside opaque technical issues (for instance, what are the exchange rates used to calculate these figures?) we need to ask ourselves what this assessment really means.

The FT rankings are most heavily influenced by high alumni salaries and high salary jumps after completing the MBA. So if we really wanted to increase our rankings, we could close down our arts-management and not-for-profit specialisations, and force every student to major in more traditional areas with a view to finding a high-paying job in finance or consulting. (And we could also balloon our PhD programme, irrespective of quality, because size gets a good rating in this metric.)

This demonstrates the narrow focus and some internal inconsistency of the rankings. A recent study of MBA programme quality (“From rankings to ratings” in the January 2012 issue of Global Focus, the EFMD magazine) suggested that at least 24 dimensions should be used – many of them qualitative – to assess each programme. The FT and Businessweek rankings use only nine or ten dimensions, and some other rankings use yet fewer.

The study concludes: “Herein lies the tyranny of rankings: academic stakeholders (and even many publishers of rankings) know that media rankings are flawed, but with few alternatives available, they feel stuck chasing the rankings rather than their unique educational mission.”

It is a fundamental part of the Cambridge MBA that we define success more broadly than through salaries. We will continue to take pride in educating talented students who go into arts management and non-profit organisations, or start their own company and take a hit on short-term income.

Consider Hamish Forsyth (MBA) and Robyn Scott (MPhil) who co-founded OneLeap – which helps budding enterprisers to find investors, business advice and career mentors. OneLeap is one of the Nexters – the UK’s top 20 technology social enterprises supported by the UK Prime Minister, David Cameron. But you don’t get rich by founding and running a social enterprise; so should we lament that these two graduates will ruin our rankings two years from now, when their class is interviewed? I think not. On the contrary, I believe they are role models.

Or take computer scientist Eben Upton (EMBA, May 2011). He had the idea of a low cost “hackable” computer in 2006, when he realised that students coming into computer science at university no longer had an in-depth understanding of the technology they used. It was the EMBA that gave him the business knowledge to put the Raspberry Pi computer into production. Contacts through the Cambridge network enabled him to secure funding. He also set Raspberry Pi up as an educational charity and worked with a team of MBA students who carried out a consulting project on his company.

His enterprise could change the way computing is taught in Schools: already, the UK Education Minister has referred to Raspberry Pi when discussing reform. In our context, this means a “yes” with respect to high impact, even though the rankings would consider it a “no” with respect to high salary – at least, not in time for it to count in the next set of rankings.

The lessons I am drawing from the rankings are twofold. Yes, we must strive to improve our performance on certain dimensions (including some that are not included in the rankings). We owe our students and alumni that. We have already invested heavily in the past two years, and will continue to improve.

But secondly, it is even more important to offer our students a hands-on preparation for being able to consider not only the beaten track but also non-standard career paths – to strive for excellence, and to carve out success in many dimensions that are not measured by salary, such as impact on other people’s lives.

This is at the heart of our MBA, and consistent with the broad range of influences that students can experience only within a world-class university and entrepreneurial network. We will do everything we can to increase the unique opportunities our students are exposed to. And I hope that in a year, when the FT rankings descend upon us again, I will be able to report progress – and in two years, considerable progress.

7 Responses to Lessons of the latest FT MBA rankings

  1. I refer to your remark that “…[JBS] could also balloon our PhD programme, irrespective of quality, because size gets a good rating in this metric.” I would suggest that the quality of available students is far from being the only constraint on the size of the JBS PhD cohort. I received an MPhil degree from the Judge last year, and was offered a place in the PhD programme. My College offered me funding to cover College and University fees at the Home/EU level. As an international student, that still left me (far) short of what was needed. I took up a place at an equally prestigious programme elsewhere that was happy to fund my research. Scarcity of funding limits JBS’s ability to support doctoral research at least as much as anything else, and I think it would be a good idea if this were acknowledged.

  2. Prof Loch —

            

    1. Thank you for making time to share your thoughts with JBS
    alumni on how to take the school forward. I welcome this as it makes
    it easy for us to keep in touch and respond to you.

     

    2. I look forward to your next post on the school’s
    strategy. 

     

    A few personal thoughts on your post about the FT MBA
    rankings — 

     

    3. Firstly, I suspect that those of us who have examined how these rankings are prepared will know (a) how arbitrary much of the scoring and
    comparisons can be, and (b) how the system can be gamed by schools – and probably is by some. A quick, easy intro to this subject is Malcolm Gladwell’s
    essay last year – “What college rankings really tell us”
    (http://j.mp/yTomLg) – which was not about business schools in particular but
    exposed the problems that lie at the heart of all such rankings. 

     

    4(i). In addition to your points about the limitations of these
    rankings, it’s perhaps worth noting that a number of leading business schools
    have, for some years at least, strongly encouraged their students/participants
    to move into careers in finance or consulting. (My evidence is only anecdotal –
    from friends who attended leading b-schools in the US and Europe, but I have no
    reason to doubt it.) Given the well-publicized differences in compensation,
    other rewards and even attention (from the careers-related press) that have
    historically existed between these two industries and the rest, it probably
    doesn’t require much explaining to understand why some b-schools have wanted to push their candidates into finance or consulting. For the schools, the feedback effect of producing more consultants and
    bankers at “top-tier” firms is an improved ranking, and thus more
    access to leading businesses in future. 

     

    4(ii). The problem that results for a younger, smaller school
    like Judge is that some MBA employers/recruiters choose to be guided by these
    rankings because (a) they have no other metric with which to do a
    nominally-objective comparison, and (b) in times of conservative budgets and
    in an employers’ market, it feels much safer to recruit from a
    top-ranked/well-known school, especially if they have hired successfully from
    that school before. At least this is what a number of London-based recruiters
    have told me. One other thing some recruiters have told me is that some hiring
    managers who are MBAs themselves express a preference for hiring from their own
    school or what they consider a “similar” or “equally good”
    school.   

     

    5. A corollary for Judge is, I suggest, the value of
    continuing to strive to build relationships directly with key MBA-recruiters
    who may not have hired in significant numbers from Judge before. This could be
    facilitated by alumni (of Cambridge, not just Judge) who now work for such
    firms. The relationship-building could take the form of consulting
    exercises/projects for these firms, inviting their participation at Judge-based
    events/seminars/forums, etc.

    Looking beyond rankings — 

     

    6.  In your post, you
    mention a few alumni/entrepreneurs who have followed a non-traditional path and achieved
    significant success. I feel we need to communicate and publicize such cases –
    in newspapers, the careers and MBA press, relevant industry journals, etc. –
    perhaps more actively than we currently do. In defining itself, Judge stresses its
    strengths – in entrepreneurship, creativity, technology and cross-disciplinary
    enterprises. Therefore, we should use strong examples of our successes (as
    you’ve cited) to drive this point home vividly and memorably in the minds of
    external audiences. People remember stories better than they remember themes or
    abstract assertions/claims. We should confidently use the many success stories
    from Judge to emphasize externally not just how we are different (every school
    claims that!) but that we have impact and we facilitate the kinds of success that
    increasingly matter and are valued and honoured by society. 

     

    7. In recent months/years – perhaps because of what
    we’ve learnt from the 2008 crisis and continuing economic pain worldwide,
    some business writers and thinkers have argued that “traditional” MBA
    professions such as finance and consulting have “peaked” and in terms
    of their public reputation and employment potential (if not compensation) will
    not enjoy the positions they once did, for some time at least. Regardless of
    whether this is true or not, Judge could take a long-range view of the future
    demand for high-grade management talent to determine where it should focus its
    research/specialised efforts. In other words, given all the main challenges the world faces in the intermediate-to-long term, what industries or problems are likely to emerge as
    priorities for societies? I don’t claim to know the answer but I suspect it
    includes concerns/problems like food security, public healthcare,
    public transport, energy security, an education system fit for the 21st
    century, etc. None of these are traditional business school subjects, but I
    think there will be growing demand for experts that have worked on and thought
    about these issues. Therefore, Judge can begin to focus today to have an impact
    tomorrow on some of these complex problems – by building connections with businesses and
    governments that are working on them, investing in such research, etc. The
    competitive advantage that Judge already enjoys is that it is a part of the Cambridge
    ecosystem where there is an abundance of key scientific talent/knowledge.
    It is in the inter-disciplinary, economically-sound and professionally-managed
    approach to many of these large-scale problems (e.g. guided by past business case
    studies) that their solutions will be found. Perhaps there is an opportunity
    for Judge to be bold here.  

     

    Sincerely,

     

    Samir Prakash

    (MBA 2008-09) 

     

     

     

     

  3. Funding for PhD students is, as you state, absolutely vital, and is insufficient at present. We are actively seeking to expand sources of funding, including underwriting from the School itself, and including seeking scholarship funding from outside the business school. We have been successful recently in competition for scarce funding including ESRC funding and Gates scholarships. But our goal is to be competitive with the major PhD programs in the world that fully fund their PhD students.

  4. Christoph, I agree with much of what you have written regarding the Rankings but I think the school’s brand awareness is suffering. As an ex-alumn I have lost count of the number of people who are surprised to learn that Cambridge has a business school, which is somewhat frustrating (and embarrassing) especially given the world class reputation of the University. 

    You are also right to applaud people like Eben and Hamish (a friend and classmate) for starting businesses. I realise how this can impact the salary weighting (I too work for a Start-up) but I would say that these cases are definitely the minority, even though we believe one of our differentiators in the B-School marketplace is our focus on entrepreneurship.

    Personally, I would love to see the school move further towards a more entrepreneurial structure and syllabus, perhaps even moving towards a 2 year degree where the second year is much like the successful YC and Techstar models. 

    Good luck 

  5. JBS suffers in the FT European Business School Rankings because it only has one Program assessed (The MBA). Subject to fairly good future placements on its Mphil Management and EMBA programs in the ranking, JBS should be able to move up from Tier2-3 too Tier1 in the next FT rankings if it would include those programs in the FT ranking – a higher ranking in the FT Euro Business schools, would also help to propel its MBA program – it’s a positive spiral /trend. Thus, may we ask why JBS has taken the decision not to include those programs in the FT Euro Business school’s ranking? (Are the cohorts to small to be ranked?)

  6. That’s really great to hear the impact those teams made! You don’t hear enough first hand accounts of how getting hands on and in-depth training in a real working environment can be so successful.

  7. Well said. You really don’t get expertise job training in a real class room environment which is possible only if trained under a mentor in working environment. Keep updating .

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