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SEGRAN NAIR, UNIVERSITY OF CAPE TOWN
"B-schools need to compel students to think critically"
B-schools from emerging economies are increasingly making it to global rankings. Segran Nair, discusses where management education is heading
 
The University of Cape Townís Graduate School of Business is the only African management school to make it to the Financial Timesí list of Top 100 B-schools. Segran Nairís Ė Director of the Associate in Management Certificate Programme, the Postgraduate Diploma in Business Administration & the MBA Programme at GSB Ė maiden visit to India makes it clear that the Graduate School of Business is ready for an international student base. In this exclusive conversation with 4Ps B&Mís Arpita Sarkar, Nair shares why B-schools in emerging countries like India and South Africa need a more contextual approach with a strong focus on the domestic ecosystem. Excerpts from the interview:

From a time when management gaduates were required to engineer complex debt-based instruments at Wall Street to now when they are required to clean the mess, what is the greatest challenge for B-schools? What must they do to stay relevant?

If you talk of the present day scenario, I think it is about contextualising and focussing on decision making. A B-school experience cannot just be about self-enrichment. In order to be relevant, B-schools have to incorporate a much more critical approach in the curriculum where they start talking about the actual responsibilities of managers in the form of decision making itself. They have to analyse what these decisions would mean for stakeholders at large. B-schools need to compel students to think critically and revamp the course content. When I say revamp, I mean that every B-school needs to do its own bit. For instance, we at GSB have done a couple of things. A course in our programme is called Professional Development and focuses on the strengths and weaknesses of each student making it an introspective exercise.

We have also established the Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Management students at the centre work on developing solutions for societal problems. For example, South Africa is a developing economy where we have a health care system which is funded by both government and as well as private institutions. Patients who opt for private hospitals get world class treatment and facilities. But those who cannot afford, go to the public ones and have to spend hours for someone to just attend to them. The treatment in such hospital can be described as mediocre and in most cases substandard at best. In such cases, intervention through application of management solutions can make a substantial difference. For example, we at GSB have partnered with the City of Cape Town to help solve certain issues. Respective authorities from the city come to us with problems. We then send our students in groups to address these issues with three objectives: 1. They have to come up with a sustainable solution; 2. It has to generate revenue; and 3. It has to create value for stakeholders.

These are just two examples of how we have revamped our course content to become much more relevant and critical. Another programme which we have introduced is called the evidence based practice. It is a course that teaches students how to accumulate evidence for decision making.

 
According to recent GMAT estimates, 2/3rd of B-schools report that applications for the two-year full time programme have dropped. Another 57% report that applicants for one year programmes have dropped. What does this imply?

Each course has its own challenges and these trends keep changing as per market conditions. I think if uncertainty continues across markets, students might look up for a modular format. In 2010, the intake for full time programmes was huge, while in 2011, a preference was seen for modular course. Our class size for the full time programme is 80 and about 80-82 for the modular programme. Compared to other B-schools, this is smaller. Consistent with the macro-economic situation in 2011, we got some 300-350 applicants for the modular course and around 170-180 applications for the full time. You see how the scene changes so promptly that in December 2011 we had a good number of 80 students but then during admissions, the number dropped to 70. This implies that 10 students changed their mind and decided not to go for a full time MBA but for the modular programme, the intake increased. Many B-schools in US have actually closed doors for full time programmes because they do not find much takers. These B-schools are now looking at other formats.

A lot of investment is being made around the world for establishing world class universities and management schools which can compete with those in the US. Do you think investing alone can cater to the need of relevant human resources around the world?

I think itís about a lot more than just catering to human resource needs. I am a bit critical on the models proposed and implemented by North American B-schools in developing and emerging economies. They tend to apparently believe that their model fits into other economies as well. I think that is hogwash. If the course content has been developed to cater to developed markets, then how on heavens can it be relevant to the economic environment of developing countries and emerging economies. The curriculum needs to be contextualised in accordance with local problems, because the solutions these management graduates come up with have to be local. As I said earlier, we need to be more relevant. B-schools need to go back to the original model when an MBA was about general management. Organisations and firms in emerging economies donít really need functional expertise. They need general managers who have an eye for detail and can encapsulate various business functions into a singular long term strategic vision. And that is what an MBA should enable a candidate to do. It is high time that we in India and South Africa take our own contextual realities into consideration. Instead of American case studies, those which are locally relevant need to be developed. Given the dynamism of our economies, we can easily merge practice with theory creating original content.

What do you think are the most important factors that differentiate faculties of top B-schools from the ones that are not so sought after?
          
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