The New Contender in the Game of Rankings

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COPENHAGEN, Denmark – Business school rankings play a major role in the higher education environment. The fight for the top spots has increased over the past decade and now resembles the struggles of a boxing match. But how can integrative management education as the new contender join the game of rankings?

The international ranking systems of business school programmes have come to constitute an essential feature of the contemporary landscape of higher education. As rankings have risen greatly in prominence and influence over the past decade, the environment now resembles aspects of the ruthless competition and struggle of survival of a boxing ring. Conceptualized as a ‘ranking game’, there are rules to follow, a comparison of values shaping the modes of competition among business schools. But does this game have a leveled playing field for new candidates? The defending champions definitely seem to know their ‘business’ from the way their fists are swinging, but are they inadvertently hitting the targets of society? We visited the workshop “Humanities and Social Sciences in Management Education: Writing, Researching, Teaching” in Copenhagen to prospect the new contender in the game of rankings: Integrative Management Education.

The Game of Rankings: Follow the Money

While, most business education critics and advocates alike would agree that the rankings of business schools programmes have many flaws, they are still continuously calling upon them to verify a top position in the market of business schools. So, the business schools are certainly not only left trapped in the game of rankings, but rather, their willingness to participate has driven it forward.

“Part of the mainstreaming of the business school into the academic order always needs to have an elite. That is a crucial thing. So for me, the rankings are part and parcel of the social order, where you need to have this elite that is setting a standard that is going down to the second and third tier institutions,” explains Ellen O’Connor, who has taught in the most prestigious business schools in the US for over 30 years. As a part of the natural selection in the environment of business education, the rankings functions as a classification mechanism that produces a hierarchical list, helping the advantageous business schools attract more eager applicants. However, the effect of rankings is a double-edged sword as the possibility of change is forced to take the backseat.

“Rankings play a large role in all of higher education and it has become a very important mechanism that does more than just rank. It actually enforces certain kinds of norms de facto. It can have a positive role in supporting a baseline, but it also really inhibits anything that deviates importantly from those norms,” explains William Sullivan, co-author of the book Rethinking Undergraduate Business Education. As a result of the rankings drawing on a particular set of criteria that are perceived to reflect important and legitimate aspects of business education, it forms a kind of template used by business schools to shape their identity. In this sense, rankings have come to play an essential role in defining what a ‘true’ or ‘best’ business school is set out to be. But whenever we put on blinders to see one way as the way forward, it can drive decisions that may not be ideal in another light.

“One of the not so great features of mainstream rankings is that they include [the students’] starting graduate salary as a very important criteria, and that tends to reinforce the idea that the only purpose of the business education is to have a credential that [students] can trade in for a salary. It really detracts from it and in fact begins to reduce the intrinsic motivations,” argues Sullivan, calling for urgent action to orchestrate a real discussion about these issues.

Ranking systems, such as the Financial Times Global MBA Ranking, focuses heavily on the outcome of business education, as more than half of the assessment is based on salary increase and job opportunities. Since it largely tries to follow the money, the top-ranked schools are often referred to as a ‘golden ticket’ to success in the environment of business education. This is not, however, surprising considering the huge cost of an MBA, especially with the top business schools in the US costing an average of $100,000.

Nonetheless, this discourages business schools to admit and inspire students to pursue less financially lucrative careers. While the potential post-graduate salaries of management consultants and investment bankers certainly would help to ensure the school a top ranking spot, pursuing a career in entrepreneurship, social enterprises or nonprofit organizations would most likely do more harm than good. Not to say that pursuing alternative careers with a ‘golden ticket’ would necessarily have a higher value, but dedicating such a large amount to purely financial considerations seems to be disregarding their purpose. The underlying reasoning is simple: the worth of a business degree is mainly determined by its value on the market. So, if prospective students are interested in a business career path less travelled then following the high average starting salary of the ‘best’ business schools will be largely misleading.

Image source: shawnzrossi / Flickr under Creative Commons

Image source: shawnzrossi / Flickr under Creative Commons

If You Can’t Win, Change The Rules

In confronting this challenge, the Aspen Institute published the first Beyond Grey Pinstripes Rankings in 1999. (It was originally started by the World Resources Institute as “Grey Pinstripes with Green Ties” in 1998 before partnering with the Aspen Institute). Instead of fixating on the salary and job placement data, which tend to limit students to the role of passive consumers, it focuses where business and society issues are actually being taught and researched. By being entirely based on a detailed review of course descriptions, faculty research abstracts, and the students’ exposure to these topics, the methodology differs distinctly from the mainstream rankings’ decidedness to follow the money.

“We felt that the mainstream rankings put too much emphasis on the GMAT-scores of students going in and the possible salary increases that they would get going out,” explains Nancy McGaw, Deputy Director of the Business and Society Program at the Aspen Institute (the GMAT is a standardized test used for business school admission in the US). She continues: “I think students are reasonable asking, ‘If I spend this much money, can I turn it into an opportunity that will allow me to get value from what I have invested?’ But I think there is a bigger question of, ‘Will the education allow me to be the best possible business professional that I can be and step up to the responsibilities that business has to help solve some of our most complex problems?’ The rankings didn’t help students figure out the second part, and neither did it do anything to help faculty and administrators to benchmark their programmes against these kinds of metrics for success.”

According to McGaw, business succeeds most when it is creating long-term positive change, not only for the stakeholders of the company, but for society as a whole. Although, the mainstream rankings can help students make a solid economic decision, it is too often a short-term one that does not help business to live up to its full potential.

Despite the timely nature of these rankings, Aspen Institute decided to suspend their rankings, leaving a void for prospective students looking for a business education with focus on social, environmental, and ethical issues. “We achieved our principle objective, which is to map the landscape of MBA-programmes, where business and society issues are being taught and researched. We have documented a substantial increase in business and society content, but now it’s time to look more deeply at some specific areas,” explains McGaw. “Even after reading and analyzing thousands of imports we couldn’t make a quality decision, only a content decision on what was being taught, and not a quality decision on whether it was being taught in a way that really had an impact on the students.” As a result, the Aspen Institute has shifted focus and initiated The Purpose of the Corporation and Undergraduate Business Consortium, to name a few of their new programmes.

If you can’t join them, beat them

So does integrative management education has what it takes to ‘float like a butterfly, sting like a bee’ in the game of rankings? In the ring corner of the new contender, a partnership between the Copenhagen Business School’s Department of Management, Politics and Philosophy, the University of St. Gallen’s Contextual Studies, and the Haniel Stiftung have taken form to address the challenges on how to integrate humanities and social sciences with business education.

According to Ulrike Landfester, Professor and Vice-President of the University of St. Gallen, the integrative management model “certainly can and certainly will” be a hit in the ranking systems in the long run. But there are some major hurdles to overcome first: “One hurdle is that the humanities and social sciences have no, as of yet, proper system of measurement for their research output. That has always been a problem. We don’t count our influence in citation hits. The other part is that we will have to convince the rating agencies and mostly those who are behind them that humanities and social sciences indeed bring a significant added value to business education. When we can do that and find a good and stable system of measurement for research output, it will be one of the main stepping stones.”

Regardless of the suspension of the Beyond Grey Pinstripes Ranking and the urgent need for the humanities and social sciences to rethink how they present themselves, she remains optimistic to take on the challenges. “The CEMS and SIM Masters programmes from the University of St. Gallen have both been at the top of the Financial Times [Global Masters in Management] rankings, and they already have significantly complements in the humanities and social sciences,” she argues. “I can’t tell you whether that played any role in the high placement, but it certainly plays a role in the quality of the output. This is a small distinction, but a distinction that we need to be aware of. I’m not sure that all the components are so to speak ‘on the radar’ of the ranking agencies, but it is certain that those components are an important part of the high quality [of education].”

These are inspirational statements from Landfester worth remembering when trying to influence the current obsession on mainstream rankings. Turning back to the initial question of whether integrative management education has what it takes to challenge the status quo, it is probably not there yet. But it is definitely getting ‘ready to rumble’.  She adds, “We will have to talk with them again and again. I have been doing so for quite some time and I intend to go on doing it. I can’t say whether or when that helps, but I really hope so.”

This post is produced in partnership with GRASP Magazine and Student Reporter and part of our joint project on Humanities and the Social Sciences in Management Education, specifically covering the Carnegie Roundtable Workshop at Copenhagen Business School. 

Guest writer Anders Berg Poulsen from Copenhagen, Denmark is studying MSc in Philosophy and Business Administration at Copenhagen Business School.  He is Co-founder and board member for GRASP Magazine.

Correction, June 28, 2013: The original article did not mention the World Resources Institute’s contribution to the Beyond Grey Pinstripes Rankings.

Featured image source: USMC Archives / Flickr under Creative Commons

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