Market Report | What hope for the traditional MBA?

27 August 2020

Director of Business School Services Ian Hawkings reflects on what's moving and shaking the flagship business education programme, ahead of our next round of research on Tomorrow's MBA in October 2020.


If you were to create a word cloud of the findings from CarringtonCrisp’s last ten business school reports, then a few words would jump out as those big, bold ones that feature again and again in the text.

‘Flexible’ would certainly be one. ‘Specialised’ would be another. And perhaps ‘diverse’ and ‘ethical’ might be two more.

None of these words fit very well with how most people view the business school MBA. And although the degree has changed a great deal in the last ten or twelve years, it still feels as though it is struggling to remain relevant in a world that has moved on.

So why don’t schools drop the MBA altogether? Well, some have – at least in its traditional full-time iteration.

But the vast majority persist – tweaking and fiddling, adding electives, building in experiences, allowing greater degrees of specialisation and flexibility. Some to the point where the programme bears scant resemblance to the original MBA formula of a two-year generalist degree in the core business principles.

There are many reasons for this, not least that applications to MBA programmes in a number of key global regions are still strong. But for many modern schools, the full-time MBA occupies a shrinking portion of the portfolio.

We’ve been producing our Tomorrow’s MBA report for more than ten years now – it was launched in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008, and the subsequent questions around the validity of the MBA and its graduates. If 2008 was an inflection point for the brand of the MBA, after a decade of open-heart surgery, 2020 feels like an even more thorough examination of the relevance of the degree as we know it. If not an autopsy, then something close to it.

Looking at the data for this year’s report – published in January - one thing is obvious: the MBA market will be different from the previous decade.

Students are even clearer about what they expect – one-year programmes rather than two-years, greater degrees of specialisation, more built-in flexibility. They want different content too – a stronger focus on responsible management, ethical leadership, diversity and equality, and how to respond to global challenges.

Note that this was all data collected pre-Covid, pre-BLM. If we were to run the same study today, there’s a good chance the desire for change would be even clearer to see. If schools think they can get away with paying lip-service to these issues any longer, they are likely in for a nasty surprise.

Last year’s report noted that “the rapid change in skills sought by employers means there is a risk that what an MBA learns during their studies could be out of date before they have paid back their loans for studying”. Students may increasingly look for short bursts of learning to top up existing knowledge or add an understanding of new subjects that are prized by employers. Studying in short bursts offers flexibility for the learner to fit with their lifestyle and can be much more cost-effective for an employer if they are paying.

Looking ahead, perhaps tomorrow's MBA is a lifetime programme, delivered in modules relevant to an individual's career, with blended delivery. Modules could be certified on completion and stack up to a full degree with options for more components as required. There could be reduced fees for alumni, customised incentives for various different demographics. The list of possible innovations is long.

If schools are too slow to make changes, organisations such as Smartly and Jolt who are offering alternatives and others such as General Assembly who have developed short courses in particular skills with high employer demand, will very happily meet these requirements.

The current MBA market can be summarised in two words – ‘accelerating change.’ Prospective students are demanding content outside the confines of the traditional MBA, appear to be very flexible in where, how and who they get their personal development from, and want to engage with a variety of people that can help their academic, business and international ambitions.

Having said all of this, get the mix of content right, deliver it in a way that makes sense to the students of today and, given the increasing demand for postgraduate business education as workers seek to reskill and upskill, the MBA can still be part of the answer.

The next round of Tomorrow's MBA begins in October 2020. To be part of the study and discover the future of your school's MBA, call us on +44 207229737 or email us at


Photo by Buro Millennial from Pexels

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