GONE are the days when the hero in a TV drama would flaunt himself as an MBA student. Over time, the degree has lost its charm. Reputed business schools in Pakistan have slashed their enrolment targets drastically to avoid enrolling below certain threshold abilities.

The popular hypotheses for the decline are: the initiation of a four-year BBA; the failure of MBA programmes to add value to the BBA; and business schools have lost touch with the job market. The Higher Education Commission’s emphasis on research notwithstanding, no researcher seems to have taken up this decline — a sad reflection on the state of applied research.

What can be done to revive interest in busi­­ness studies, especially the MBA degree?

What can be done to revive interest in business studies?

Academic programmes in business seek to produce managers rather than leaders.MBA degree holders and chartered accountants with careers in the corporate sector are ideally suited to teach in and advise business schools through full-time engagement. Such professors-in-practice would know what textbook material works and what does not. And out of what works, what finds its way into the curriculum and what does not. Thus, business schools would remain tuned to market demand.

Unfortunately, the system does not welcome such professionals to business schools on a full-time basis. The ranks of university teachers start with lecturer and end with professor. Thanks to policy, if MBA degree-holders like former prime minister Shaukat Aziz, or Asad Umar, who reached the zenith of their corporate careers, opt to teach full-time at a public business school, they can be hired only as lecturers — assistant professors must have a PhD, an HEC requirement. A business school seeking to hire an experienced chartered accountant would think twice about matching his salary with that of a professor with a PhD in finance, though the former may offer greater value for money.

The system favours hiring researchers to teach would-be managers and CEOs. Potential students are believed to consider university rankings when seeking admission. Research at a university carries major weight in university rankings. Research is undertaken by PhD faculty and PhD students. To generate ‘research for ranking’, universities end up hiring PhD faculty and initiating PhD programmes. Typically, enrolment in PhD/MS programmes is not enough to consume the full teaching load of the PhD faculty. Hence, researchers teach would-be practitioners: BBAs and MBAs.

For business schools, the above would work if researchers remained in touch with the business world, perhaps by writing case studies. Writing up cases also tells the faculty what is relevant or dated. Again, the system does not favour case-writing. The faculty climbs the career ladder through research publications and not many journals accept case studies for publication. Journals that do publish case studies are often not in the rank bracket the HEC requires for career progression.

Even writing research articles that keep researchers abreast of the latest happenings in the business world is fine. However, finding an obvious relationship and that too for the umpteenth time, eg between the work environment and employee satisfaction, yields a publishable paper — reinventing the wheel works. This kind of research is often possible in the comfort of offices. No wonder researchers do not go into the field.

The use of online surveys for data collection has further cut into potential opportunities for industry academia linkage. Thus, while the cherished ‘linkage’ continues to be on the wish list, business schools, using foreign books, may overemphasise the implications of a pat on the back of an employee, while local industry might conclude it is the ‘money and the stick’ that works.

Regulatory and accreditation bodies should debate the presence of practitioners in the faculty of business schools. If this presence earns their nod then to encourage such induction, the ranking and accreditation criteria should assign sufficient weight to it.

Co-op programmes are in vogue in several countries. Under this, the student studies for one semester at university, goes to work in the next, and returns to university in the third. Alternating between studies and work, the student gains useful practical knowledge and to an extent also figures out how close or far the real world is from what he/she learnt at school — persuading teachers to discard dated ideas and include the latest and relevant material. Above all, students can finance their education themselves while providing inexpensive labour to industry. This is a win-win situation for all.

A firm and a business school should sit, one-to-one, to develop and run co-op programmes. The HEC can chip in, while recognising that one size does not fit all.

The writer is dean, Air University School of Management, and is associated with the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics, Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, March 4th, 2018

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