Rankings, whether you love them or hate them, are undoubtedly a key component of the business education landscape, but could they be better? Amongst business schools, there has been much debate over the years on how the rankings methodology should change. The recent report by the United Nations Global Compact, plus the Financial Times itself announcing a review of its methodology points to some potentially major changes over the next few months.
The starting point has to be to ask the question what is the point of rankings? Are they about measuring excellence? Are they a guide to help students find the best experience or the best prospect of a highly paid career on graduation? Are they about measuring research impact, contribution to a local economy or even, as I have read recently, the best UK universities for car parking?
The various rankings have certainly provided a valuable source of information for different audiences, but do they measure what’s useful and is it done in a rigorous manner? Business education is changing rapidly, and rankings need to adapt to reflect the changing needs and demands of business school customers, as well as the operations of the schools themselves.
There will be a lot of opinions on how rankings should change, but to help the debate I think it is useful to consider some of the major trends that will shape business schools over the next decade. These include the increased global demand for business education, the changing world of work, the impact of technology, and the fundamental purpose and place of business in wider society.
I suggest there are four factors that are a useful starting point for thinking about how rankings may need to evolve.
The first is the increasing global nature of business education and where students are coming from/where they will learn. The growth of online learning means a growing student body continuing to study where they live/work and never or rarely visiting a campus. The total number of mobile broadband connections in Africa is expected to more than double from 419 million in 2017 to 1.07 billion by 2022. This represents a potentially huge market. How do rankings properly take account of digital and online learning? Should they try to measure the quality of the online experience?
Connected to this is the rise of business schools outside North America, Europe, and Australasia. In the current Financial Times ranking of the top 100 full-time MBA programmes, only 16 schools were from outside these regions, although this has grown over the past decade and is likely to continue to do so. With the rise of Asian, African, Middle Eastern and Latin and South American business schools, there may be a shift in the business school rankings that will be the most prominent and valued.
It is also worth remembering that in typically listing only 100 schools, a ranking is a small snapshot of the millions of students around the world. It is estimated that there are about 7,000 providers of MBAs globally, and how rankings may be able to present a wider picture of the market is worthy of consideration.
Second, is the nature of time. Many rankings are based on the experiences and views of alumni a few years post-graduation. This may provide a snapshot to see the impact of business education on careers, but why three years and not five or ten? With working lives likely to lengthen as the 100-year life becomes more frequent, rankings that can look further would be helpful. Of course, this throws up problems as well. If more students become lifelong learners, which piece of learning has made the greatest difference to them?
In a world where real-time data is much more prevalent, a delay of three years in taking a measurement also seems somewhat anomalous. At a time where many services and product choices are influenced by up to date online reviews, should ranking organisations explore how to better record current student and client satisfaction? In our tomorrow’s MBA research, teaching quality is consistently one of the most important elements for students when considering a programme, but three years after study, it may be difficult for an individual to be clear about this aspect of their student experience.
Third, is the issue of measuring salary. From my conversations with schools, this is probably the single biggest critique of rankings. Should how much money someone makes post-graduation occupy such a prominent place in the methodology? This is particularly important when one considers the reasons many individuals undertake a degree such as an MBA, which is to start their own business, with a growing interest in social entrepreneurship. Many schools argue that some rankings discriminate against such individuals, whose immediate post-graduation salaries normally show a decrease. Entrepreneurship consistently appears as a focus for students in our research, and the rankings need to work out how to embrace this within their methodologies.
Finally, connected to all of this is the wider issue of how rankings measure a business school’s social and wider impact – it is a focus on the recommendations of the UN Global Impact Report. Over the last 20 years, business schools have faced criticism, sometimes fairly, sometimes not for the various ills of capitalism and the economy. There are so many schools who are doing amazing work in helping to solve societal and business issues and a review of rankings is an opportunity to illustrate this work.
Technology has the power to transform rankings, to turn them into interactive tools that can meet the individual needs of prospective students and corporate customers. A personalised ranking experience in a broader framework of data points offers an exciting future for rankings which would highlight the contribution of a wider group of business schools. The same schools might continue to lead the rankings, but it will be easier for the users of rankings to find a culture and fit that best suits their desires and needs.
Rankings need to help business school customers, reflecting their needs and providing transparent approaches to methodology and data collection. Rankings need to be believable, comprehensive and imaginative if they are to deliver value.
The time for change is upon us.