Buyer beware: Probe past headline figures

Tom Welsh
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EACH year, the Financial Times (FT) creates an interactive guide to the world’s best executive MBA (EMBA) programmes. Its headline figures are the result of a weighted formula – average alumnus salary contends with diversity indices and career progress rankings -- and schools make proud use of these findings in their marketing. Described as a list of the “best management programmes available”, it is a useful tool for applicants to find the right EMBA.

But the FT ranking, like competitors at Businessweek and The Economist, should not be used without thought. It has limitations as well as benefits, and executives planning to spend more than £50,000 on an EMBA should be conscious that the FT cannot provide a simple answer to the complex dilemma of course selection.

“Rankings are just one measure applicants should use,” says Kathy Harvey, director of the EMBA programme at the Said Business School. They are a “good starting point,” agrees Steve Cousins, MBA admissions manager at Cass Business School. They can roughly narrow lots of potential programmes into a smaller group.

But how rough is this starting point? How should EMBA rankings be used to analyse differences between business schools and to find the right course for the right candidate?

Schools themselves have a love-hate relationship with them. Harvey views them as informal external audits. “We shouldn’t be sitting in our ivory towers, complaining about the rankings.”

But beneath the top-line positions, these rankings contain elements that need close attention from candidates to prove their value. Their worth is also bound to the student knowing what they want from the course.

Figures for average alumnus salary growth may sound uncontroversially useful, for example, but applicants must weigh this information against other research and their priorities.

Class profile matters. It can be starkly different and affects salary growth scores. The average student in the current Cass cohort is 30 years old and has seven years, seven months business experience. Said’s average student has double the work experience. The relative seniority of Said’s students could affect how quickly their salaries grow post-EMBA. According to Cousins, measures of “career progress may not be as noticeable if a course attracts more senior executives.”

Similarly, executives should consider whether some ranking criteria are relevant to their needs. IE Business School saw alumni salaries increase by 153 per cent in the three years following graduation, pushing the course up to eighth in the world. But for executives who want to set up a businesses, salary growth may be relatively unimportant. They must calculate how IE’s overall ranking is conditioned by this high individual score.

Rankings are also a historical picture of past achievement. An alumnus’s perception of how his or her career has progressed is gauged through a retrospective interview. In the dynamic world of course development, historical promise may fade and poor performance one year may dramatically turn around the next.

The FT mitigates against disproportionate skews to individual measures by using three years of data where possible. But some schools are new to the list. This is a problem for Said, says Harvey. The school’s course has only been included since 2010 and its result does not yet benefit from the three-year stabilising effect.

Perhaps the rankings’ greatest limitation lies in an inability to accurately depict differences in organisational and teaching culture. This may sound somewhat woolly, but understanding differences between programmes is crucial if the potential candidate is to get the most out of his or her EMBA.

Harvey cites one striking example at Said. It is penalised in the rankings for a low number of teaching hours spent abroad, but the school consciously does not offer pairings with foreign partners. Oxford is a “world-class university” which offers “an Oxford degree and not anything else”. Some of the special benefits of studying at Said – being part of “the fabric of Oxford” and membership of a college – are skewed into criticism in a list that puts a premium on hours spent learning outside Britain.

This example emphasises the importance of cautious research. This caution must be more than natural mindfulness that the buyer must beware. It should spring from a clear idea of what is wanted from an EMBA, from understanding the different approaches schools take, and from a determination to delve beneath the marketing slogans. All this will ensure that EMBA rankings are a useful starting point and not a misleading route down a blind alley.

Top 10 executive MBA programmes in the world

1 Kellogg/ Hong Kong UST Business School
2 Trium: HEC Paris/ LSE/ New York University: Stern
3 Columbia/ London Business School
4 Insead
5 University of Chicago: Booth
6 Duke University: Fuqua
7 University of Pennsylvania: Wharton
8 IE Business School
10 London Business School

Top 10 executive MBA programmes by percentage salary growth

1 IE Business School
2 Korea University Business School
3 Columbia/London Business School
4 Imperial College Business School
5 Kellogg/ WHU-Otto Beishelm School
6 Warwick Business School
7 City University: Cass
8 Essec/ Manheim
10 Ceibs