GBSN Beyond 2023: Building an MBA that works for the new world

30 November 2023

Ian Hawkings writes about a trip to Cairo and looking forward rather than admiring the past.


Imagine going to Cairo for the first time and not laying eyes on the pyramids....  

Nevertheless, I was delighted to be asked to present a breakout session at the recent GBSN Beyond conference, hosted by the American University in Cairo’s business school. I was joined by Jako Volschenk, from Stellenbosch Business School to discuss the future of the MBA programme. 

Cairo is a fascinating city – or two cities. Old Cairo is a maze; intoxicating, alive, noisy. As we sat on a coach through the old city’s centre on the way to AUC’s original campus, a Robin Williams quote came to mind, ‘what do you call rush hour when nobody’s moving?’.  

By contrast, New Cairo, where our hotel was, is a vast building site. I have never seen so many buildings in construction all at one time in the same place. In a city of 22 million, and growing by almost 500,000 per year, it’s clearly a case of ‘if you build it, they will come’.  

Can the same be said for MBA programmes? Probably not. GMAC’s last trends report showed that MBA applications were down 6.5 percent across the board. But that doesn’t paint the whole picture – applications to European programmes were more robust than in the US and ‘flexible’ MBAs were seen to be doing well globally. 

In our session I used data from our latest Tomorrow’s MBA to paint a picture of the kind of MBA programme that might prosper in the future. Flexibility and choice are certainly two things prospective students tell us they expect – full-time might still be the most popular mode of MBA study, but almost 40% tell us they would now actually prefer a blended, or even fully online experience. Part of this is undoubtedly to do with cost. Many students can’t afford to give up their job but still want the career-boost an MBA can provide.  

Students also expect a personal approach - they want coaching and mentorship to be part of their MBA package. And they expect content that reflects their view of what matters in today’s world – AI, Climate Change, and Data Analytics all feature in the top ten most desired programme elements. 

‘Self-confidence’ and ‘communications skills’ are now two of the top five most important skills MBA students want to develop through their studies. And 52% of respondents told us they’d prefer a specialist MBA over a traditional programme. 

Jako made a point in the breakout that in South Africa ‘no one would quit their job to study in this economy’, and that as a result, the Stellenbosch MBA is offered in a part-time hyflex format that gives students the option of attending sessions in the classroom, participating online, or doing both. 

As the world changes, so do needs and expectations. The MBA used to be almost exclusively a two-year, full-time, generalist programme designed to get students the best jobs they could hope for in industry, consulting, or finance. Its brief today, much like Cairo, is expanding at pace. 

So perhaps it’s more like ‘if you build it right, they will come’. 

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