Creating, Measuring and Building Quality

A look back at the 2019 Bachelor Programmes Conference by the conference chair, Ronan Gruenbaum, Dean, London Undergraduate Campus, Hult International Business School.

The 2019 EFMD Bachelor Programmes Conference is focused on the particular challenges undergraduate business degrees face, with students undertaking three or four-year programmes and often coming with very different perspectives and expectations compared to their post-graduate counterparts, even though only a couple of years separate them.

The conference emphasises a culture of sharing and helping each other as all schools have the same challenges – some face them at different times and, as one of the working groups said, there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution – but everything is student, school, market and country-specific. An innovative and well-received activity on the first evening, thanks to BI PhD Candidate Ann-Mari Lilleløkken was the “Ring of Reciprocity” where participants would post requests for help on specific issues they are currently facing and then post contributions to everyone else’s requests. As well as being a valuable ice-breaking exercise which encouraged networking, it also showed that despite the differences, all schools were working on the same challenges.

The 2019 conference, hosted at the spacious and airy campus of BI Norwegian Business School (BI) in Oslo, focused explicitly on Creating, Measuring and Building Quality. Undergraduate degrees are just as concerned on quality as their post-graduate counterparts but have other issues that they need to take into account and mitigate. Quality, of course, is a philosophical concept and different individuals will value different attributes in different ways as indications of quality – hence the desire to get objective measures of quality through accreditations such as EQUIS. The seat of quality, for these purposes, rested on three distinct legs: students, faculty and the programme itself.

Innovate your programmes

The programme, perhaps obviously but easily overlooked, is the most important of these three legs. Lars Olsen, the Dean of Bachelor Programmes at BI showed the Program Innovation Process BI has developed which, in just a couple of years, has been used to increase the portfolio drastically to 14 programs, whilst also identifying, with a parallel process, which existing programmes have served their purpose and are no longer relevant to students and should, therefore, be withdrawn. Lars’s colleague and Associate Professor at BI, Mark Brown, went deeper to examine the underlying structure of the programmes and propose a framework which gave the students more choice with more electives and when they made more sense throughout the programme calendar. One of the working groups later on also showed how Design Thinking principles (as defined by Stanford School) could be used when developing programmes and curricula to ensure the students’ needs and desires are at the centre of those design processes.

Engage your students

Student issues focused, fundamentally, on how to reduce student attrition from the programme, particularly by first-year students. Fred Selnes, a professor at BI showed a data-centric approach that looked at attendance, engagement with online portals (such as the Learning Management System) and other criteria to help identify students at risk of dropping out with a view to then being able to target those students even before they knew that they needed extra support. Another approach showcased by Nick McGuigan, Associate Professor & Director of Education at Australia’s Monash Business School, was how to increase engagement with the students both inside and outside the classroom by bringing in artists and poets to the campus and getting people to think about they interact together as well as with the planet. The focus on mixing accountants and artists particularly showed how traditional business courses could be opened up in new ways through artistic endeavours. One segment of students which is particularly vulnerable to dropping out are first-generation students, those whose siblings, parents and grandparents had not been to university. Laura Thompson, Assistant Dean for Undergraduate Programs at Robins School of Business in the USA explained how the families of first-generation students often put all kinds of pressure on the students that others do not feel, with all the families’ hopes and aspirations resting on the shoulders of the “first-gens” whilst also reminding them of how different they are from their origins. By recognising these challenges, Robins School of Business has a strategy to target first-generation students and create a community of support to build confidence, pride and help them succeed.

The conference participants workshopped the question of how to improve the first-year retention and had a range of activities and proposals, from facilitating support networks on campus and connecting faculty, students and industry to correcting the disconnect between the lived and the learned world; from getting students to help each other (with senior students helping the new students), to get students engaged in the community before arriving on campus through online support and videos (created by students) so they know what to expect when they arrive. A big issue when students start is helping them prioritise the different pulls on their time (parties vs assignments) and to mitigate their FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). Rita Vale, Academic Director at the Católica Lisbon School of Business and Economics, explained how they built a community with their new students by bussing them 400km into the countryside to work in 40-degree heat for a day and pick potatoes from the field missed by the farming machines. Teams would compete against each other, and the proceeds would then be donated to charities.

Dag Rune Gabrielsen, Chief HR & Digital Officer from the Norwegian NHC Group, which provide welfare services to communities such as refugees, pre-school and senior citizens, was able to show how industry deals with different categories of customer (end-users, next-of-kin, society, employees, industry) which lead to further working groups discussing how to apply these lessons to undergraduate business schools and their different stakeholders, from students to parents, faculty, staff, industry, post-graduate schools and so on. The workshops, as described before, recognised that there is no ‘one size fits all’ and everything will vary slightly depending on the student, the school, the market, and, of course, is country-specific. But once again, the main findings were to encourage stakeholders to talk to each other, help each other and make students co-producers of their own learning experience rather than always relying on the school. Looking to faculty, who often say that they are not trained to teach so how can they be expected to do it well (with most schools, where the paradigm is still the ‘publish or perish’ form of faculty employment), the working groups found that schools need to develop hiring processes that are value-based.

Measure the success

Finally, there were several sessions discussing the concept of quality and how this is measured. My own session on “How to measure what you get and get what your measure” looked at the metrics themselves (NPS vs the Likert Scale for faculty evaluations) and how these numbers should be only considered as a diagnostic in the same way that a doctor measuring one’s heart-rate should also only be a diagnostic. One poor faculty evaluation does not indicate a ‘bad’ instructor in the same way that one elevated heart-rate does not indicate heart disease – but by taking the heart-rate over a longer time period, comparing resting states and during exercise and combining it with blood tests and an ECG one can get a better indication of whether or not someone has heart disease. And so it is with faculty and course evaluations – that taking the feedback over several different courses, over different semesters or years and combined with faculty observations and qualitative feedback from students one can begin to get a better view of the effectiveness (or not) of the instructor. Research recently published by Hult International Business School has sought to gain insights from over 600,000 data points over ten years and showed how faculty showing passion, rigour, transparency and currency in the classroom were going to engage students more and consistently achieve better evaluations.

Veronika Kneip, the Programme Director for the Bachelor of Arts at Frankfurt School of Finance & Management, however, highlighted the issue of response rates and that they were able to improve these using a post-exam bundled evaluation process, although this would not work for all schools. Nottingham Business School at Nottingham Trent University does everything to scale, according to Deputy Dean Melanie Currie, and reminded everyone that the data should be used to develop and improve programmes where possible and that students can be coached into how to give constructive feedback through the surveys making them more useful still. Completing the circle around this subject, Rotterdam School of Management’s Learning Innovation Consultant Judith Auer discussed encouraging faculty to seek feedback during the course from their students (and unseen by the administration) as a means to getting faculty to learn to embrace the concept of feedback and thereby help promote the end-of-term evaluation surveys from the school.

Finally, another perspective from the industry came courtesy of the Nordic bank Nordea and Senior Recruiter, Eivind Hoff, and how they measure their applicants for roles with the company. Eivind said that they only ask three questions during the process: can the student do the job? Will the student do the job? Does the student fit the team? They are, as many already suspected, not concerned with the actual grades students achieve during their studies but look to the Charles Jennings model which states that 70% of the job is learned on the job, 20% from colleagues and through developmental relationships and only 10% came from specific courses and training. As such, employers like Nordic want business schools and universities to teach the students how to learn, as the students will need to do most of the relevant learning on the job.

With that final thought in everyone’s heads, the principal question that the delegates were left with was how their schools prepare students for the workplace? Are the students being taught how to learn? Do they learn by doing? And are they learning how to build successful developmental relationships?