Politics & Society Blog

Making Australia's MBAs Both Relevant & Flexible

Professor Alex Frino, Dean of MGSM is on record (The Australian 3 April 2013 and the Australian Financial Review 15 and 29 April 2013) suggesting that a 27% decline in Australian MBA enrolments since 2007 is primarily due to economic factors. These include business conditions generally and fee increases of up to 32%. He also indicted that the Gillard Labor government’s proposal for a $2,000 limit on self-education expenses would potentially lead to a further decline in enrolments.

In today's The Australian newspaper, Andrew Trounson's article Eyes on Libs to lift MBA demand quoted Professor Michael Powell, PVC Business at Griffith University, as saying he "...hoped that a post-election boost to economic confidence and a rethink on self-education expenses would help support a tentative recovery in enrolments after a flat demand for postgraduate business courses in Australia over the past 2 years". Professor Powell also commented on the "…signs of the international market turning around".

Economic factors no doubt weigh heavily on many prospective MBA students in Australia. It is also undeniable that the contraction in international student enrolments over the past 5-6 years has had a significant impact. However, I have for several years been reflecting on the possibility that some of the decline in MBA enrolments may be because many prospective students do not see current MBA degrees as providing outcomes relevant to them.

In this connection, many currently offered Australian MBAs are hampered by an academic view that “…an MBA must look like this”. That view reflects a progression from an academic opinion that students “should” have particular knowledge/skills sets, to those academics actively creating MBA programs in which students “must” have those knowledge/skills sets (a normative approach).

In my reflections upon possible new directions for the development of MBA programs in Australia, I have been somewhat influenced by the research of:

Klieman & Kass (2007), reported as Giving MBA Programs the Third Degree, in the Journal of Management Education, Vol.31, N0.1, February 2007, 81-103.

Klieman & Kass postulate that many business schools retain what they describe as the “normative MBA”. These are the MBA programs that have injected “…scientific method and quantitative analysis into their curricula” to make them more "academic" than the original post WW2 vocationally based programs. These authors regard that approach as being problematic because it assumes “…that there is a single knowledge set that all MBA students should acquire” (p.82).

The second type of program they describe as the “reactive mission-based MBA” which arose out of the AACSB accreditation standards of 1991. The authors suggest that some schools developed their missions without changing the curricula, leading to the retention of core units inconsistent with the mission. Further, unit redevelopment is most often undertaken by academics not sufficiently familiar with management jobs in industry.

Klieman & Kass (2007) proposed a “proactive mission-based MBA” advocating a “…more methodical approach to curriculum development, one that utilises the collective knowledge of all relevant stakeholders, not just a narrow few” (p85). A primary step in this approach is to “…produce a clear statement of the MBA program’s mission” (p88).

Rubin & Dierdorff (2009), reported as How Relevant Is the MBA? Assessing the Alignment of Required Curricula and Required Managerial Competencies, in the Academy of Management Learning & Education, Vol.8, No.2, 208-224.

By way of background, in their previous research, Dierdorff and Rubin (2006), Toward a comprehensive empirical model of managerial competencies (presented to the MERInstitute of the Graduate Management Admission Council), “…empirically derived six distinct behavioral competencies that best describe the essential behavioral requirements for all managers” (Rubin & Dierdorff, 2009, p210). These were-

1.     Managing decision-making processes                (19.66%)

2.     Managing Human Capital                                  (19.01%)

3.     Managing Strategy & innovation                        (17.14%)

4.     Managing the task environment                         (17.02%)

5.     Managing administration & control                     (16.55%)

6.     Managing logistics & technology                         (10.61%)

The requirements above are ranked by importance (in brackets) by incumbent managers.

The Rubin & Dierdorff (2009) research indicated that the curriculum coverage by graduate schools was almost counter-intuitive to the incumbent manager ratings (see their Figure 1 below). These findings provide some empirical support to the conclusions by Klieman & Kass (2007) regarding perceived deficiencies of both the “normative MBA” and “reactive mission-based MBA”.

This behavioural competency research by Rubin & Dierdorff may represent an effective proxy for Klieman & Kass’ “…collective knowledge of all relevant stakeholders” referred to above. In that event, the "mission" might simply put, be to design an MBA program that allows students the flexibility of achieving levels of behavioural competency relevant to their own existing or prospective employment situations.

The Rubin & Dierdorff “…essential behavioral requirements for all managers” seem to be affirmed by the results of the 2013 “Tomorrow’s MBA” survey of prospective MBA students by CarringtonCrisp (The New Diversity: Executive Summary 2013 found at- http://www.carringtoncrisp.com/images/PDFs/Tomorrows_MBA_2013_Exec_Summary.pdf). 

This survey found the top 3 content items considered by prospective students as important for an MBA program were (in order) – Strategic Management, Leadership and Managing People & Organisations.

One of the possibilities for achieving a truly relevant and flexible MBA program could be for some Australian universities to consider establishing a “virtual” Graduate School of Business across several discipline schools.

For the purpose of stimulating debate, I put forward two possible alternatives for redesigning a more utilitarian Australian MBA.


A 12-unit competency focused “proactive mission-based MBA” program might look like this. It has 4-core units and guides students to complete a sufficient number of electives within the various competencies to ensure a balanced learning outcome in a relevant and relatively flexible manner.

A Competency Focused MBA Degree

1. Managing Decision-making                      

Compulsory core                                          

Decision Models

Plus min 1 elective ex this competency         

Statistics, Accounting for Managers

2. Managing Human Capital             

Compulsory core #1                                    

Organisational Behaviour

Compulsory core #2                                    

Human Resource Management

Plus min 2 electives ex this competency       

Dispute Resolution, Leadership, Ethics & Governance

3. Managing Strategy & Innovation             

Compulsory core                                          

Strategic Management

Plus min 1 elective ex this competency         

Entrepreneurship, Game Theory

4. Managing the Task Environment             

Min 1 elective ex this competency                  

Marketing Management, Globalisation, International Economics

5. Managing Administration & Control                   

Min 1 elective ex this competency                   

Law for Managers, XBRL & IFRS Issues, Choose a Finance elective

6. Managing Logistics & Technology                       

Min 1 elective ex this competency                    

Supply Chain Management, Logistics Management, e-Commerce, Management Information Systems


A Fully Flexible MBA Degree

A fully flexible 12-unit MBA program might only need the 3 essential core units of Strategic Management, Leadership and Managing People and Organisations. This would allow students to thereafter effectively “build their own” MBA, using appropriate units chosen from across their university's relevant offerings.

The rationale for this approach is that not every manager will be managing the finance or logistics of a business corporation. 

For example, University Deans manage educators and students (higher education theory, policy, educational management and education law may be their key needs). Public sector mandarins manage public servants and serve their Ministers and various sections of society (political science, policy, administrative law and industrial relations may be their key needs). Social welfare sector leaders manage social workers, psychologists, external service providers and welfare “clients” (psychology, negotiation & mediation, risk management, elder law and health & social policy may be their key needs).

‘Soft skills’ including ethics and governance should, as a minimum, be embedded in each of the 3 essential core units. 

What I am suggesting is that universities need to have greater trust in the ability of prospective MBA students to craft the content of their MBAs to suit their personal academic and career goals. In this connection, the majority of prospective MBA students don't need an elite "executive" MBA. They want their degree to be relevant, flexible and above all, affordable!

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