Financial TimesThe right MBA choices are more crucial than ever

February 7, 20210
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Coronavirus may not change everything for ever, but it has already sharply disrupted education and will have a long-lasting effect on the workplaces into which current and future MBAs graduate. That makes the right choice of business school more important than ever. 

Despite initial fears, there was not a large drop in demand for the flagship business qualification during 2020. Many applicants instead saw the looming economic uncertainty as a good moment to prolong their studies or to pause their employment and reskill for the difficult period ahead.

FT MBA ranking 2021 — top 100

Yet schools scrambled to switch to blended and online learning, and to adapt to travel constraints and their knock-on effects — notably a squeeze on non-degree executive education courses. They faced (largely unheeded) calls from students for fee cuts and extra financial aid (see related article), and had to meet the needs of many to study closer to home.

In such uncertain times, a small number of business schools decided to opt out of the FT’s latest annual Global MBA Ranking. They argued that the pandemic would distort the results and that they and their alumni were too focused on responding to the pressures of Covid-19 to provide the necessary data.

By contrast, most institutions supported the argument that continuity, transparency and accountability in business education were more important than ever. With competition intensifying, they recognised the need to help students, recruiters and academics alike to benchmark and differentiate between different MBA programmes.

The result is an analysis in this Global MBA MBA report of 100 high-quality business schools around the world, including 14 top-class institutions (half of them in the US) that we have grouped as tier I, based on their particularly strong scores. A further 32 we judge as being in tier II, scoring above the average. For completeness, we also separately show the top-ranked schools over the past three years, including those that did not participate this year.

The methodology and weightings in the FT analysis — such as for salaries — are significantly shielded from the immediate dampening effects of coronavirus on the rankings because they reflect the views and career progress of those who graduated up to three years ago.

All business schools around the world have been affected by Covid-19, albeit to differing degrees, reflecting their own strategies and the public health response of the countries in which they operate. These factors remain useful reference points for selection.

We urge readers to focus not only on the overall aggregate ordinal rankings but also to explore online the individual data points for each school. These offer more nuanced insights in assessing relevant activities to match students’ interests, skills and needs. They highlight different career paths of graduates pursuing a diverse range of private and public sector careers, including setting up their own businesses.

One adjustment this year was to remove any credit for short-term study trips of less than one month. That reflected both the difficulty of such travel during the pandemic and growing calls to take into account concerns over climate change by reducing carbon emissions. Scores for longer-term placements have also been adjusted in light of these exceptional times and are calculated using a three-year average.

As the world adapts to and recovers from the pandemic in the coming year, we plan to introduce further changes to our MBA assessment, notably to examine responsible business practices in schools’ research, teaching and operations that are increasingly demanded by students and staff. We welcome views on how best to measure these factors and others.

Trends include growing efforts to report on sustainability and to set targets for when institutions aim to become carbon neutral. That will require fresh focus on matters such as the carbon footprint generated by commuting and international travel by students and staff.

Other articles in this report include detailed insights from different schools and from past and present students. There is advice on how and where to apply, how to make the best use of time during MBA courses and how to decide on subsequent careers.

In the future, as business schools have stepped up their provision of online study — and are likely to continue this trend — many more people will be working remotely, at least part of the time. That has wide-ranging economic, social and geographical consequences, and will require a new set of skills from managers.

It also means employers will increasingly seek recruits with strong emotional intelligence and empathy alongside technical skills. That will allow them to get the most out of their workforce, not just to ease pressures on mental health but more broadly to ensure staff are engaged and motivated. That way, some of the longer-lasting effects of coronavirus may at least prove positive.

Andrew Jack is the FT’s global education editor

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