Have we lost our taste for business learning?

I saw a staggering statistic the other day. The Association of MBA’s reported that 76 per cent of full-time MBA places at UK business schools are filled by foreign students. This fact was reinforced by the impression I received in July from the academic congregation platforms at the business school graduation ceremonies at both Middlesex and Northumbria universities.

It appears the majority of the student population below MBA, at graduate level in business schools also come from overseas. This is good for our business schools in terms of income, and good for the economy in terms of export earnings, but it left the question – have we in the UK lost the appetite for formal business education?

This contrast in attitudes was reinforced in my mind by working in Cyprus. Managers there are expected to have at least a first-class degree with a high proportion having MBAs, MScs and PhDs. Whether the academic credentials are a prerequisite for management is open to debate, but the perspective in other countries, in developing economies, is almost universally that a business degree is a necessary step on the career ladder.

However, the equation in the UK is a marginal one between steep fees, loss of earnings and the potential earning power of an MBA from a top provider.

The broader question is, does the dearth of UK students mean the concept of lifelong learning for managers has not taken root? Or have we got over our obsession for qualifications as being the only route to development?

The origins of these differences for the UK are complex. Firstly, we have never had a tradition of qualification-led management skills, secondly, employers now rarely sponsor full-time management studies, and thirdly, the growth of the “self-employed mindset” encourages employers and employees to believe that development is the employee’s responsibility.

Solutions abound for this apparent void in management education, but few seem to gain critical mass or appear to give the aspirational quality and recognition that the formal full-time MBA gives to the ambitious student from abroad.

The answer has got to be a workable partnership where learning is work-based, links with continuous development, uses coaching and mentoring, is of mutual benefit for employers, employees and their peers and has accreditation for those that want it.

Most importantly, the means of delivery and participation must mesh in with today’s intensive demands on individuals and organisations using the greater variety of learning styles we now have available. This way we can achieve the goal of individuals being in control of self-learning, help the universal education of managers and maybe export a new product – the curriculum for effective management via work-based learning and partnership.

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