12 minute read

Insights into business school rankings

In episode one of the BlueSky Education Thinking podcast International BizEd Guru Matt Symonds, BlueSky Education’s Adrian Barrett and Stephanie Mullins, and Sarah Seedsman of Media Minds Global navigated the thorny topic of business school rankings from how they came about and what data is taken into consideration, to why they matter and the future of rankings.

Here's what they had to say:

Adrian Barrett-1Adrian: Welcome to the BlueSky Education Thinking podcast. I’m Adrian Barrett. And today with me, I've got the Head of Practice here at BlueSky Education, Steph Mullins, and a man who hopefully needs no introduction at all, even though I'm giving him one, International Business Education guru, Matt Symonds. So Matt, without any further ado, over to you.

Matt: Thanks, Adrian. Through these BlueSky podcasts we're looking to cover a vast range of business education themes, and today is rankings - like them or loath them they've been a part of the business education backdrop for over 30 years now. Bloomberg, of course got started with their first full time MBA ranking in 1989. The FT joined the party about 10 years later and has since multiplied the rankings that they do to include Executive Ed, Masters in Management, European Business School rankings, and most recently, online MBAs.

And Steph, I believe that you've been out and about, talking about the rankings?

Steph: I have indeed, and it's an interesting time at the moment for rankings actually, given the issues around GDPR. And new demands from students around issues like sustainability, that the rankings really have to reflect. So, I've spoken to experts to find out more.

Matt: Sounds great.

Sarah: I'm Sarah Seedsman, at Media Minds Global, and I am responsible for our insights and consulting team. We largely do market research and consulting projects for business schools.

Steph: In this episode of our business education podcast, we've been talking about rankings and just how important they are. How do you see their impact on our industry? And I understand you have some research on how influential they actually are.

Sarah SeedsmanSarah: Indeed, indeed. Okay, let me talk you through that. So, I think we've reached a point where for MBAs, full time MBAs in particular and executive MBAs, rankings are incredibly important to prospective students.  They are a major influence on the choice and I'll talk a bit about the research that shows that.

In such a competitive market for business schools trying to recruit students, if they matter to your prospective students, they matter to you as a business school to help attract those students. In terms of the research, we've done quite a lot of projects over the last couple of years with prospective students. So, we've done a lot of interviews of candidates. We've done a lot of survey work with candidates, and we are seeing how much the rankings have grown in recent years in importance, first of all, as a source of information not even as the ultimate choice, but in terms of where do they go first to get information about a business school. In one of the recent research projects, we did with MBA candidates globally for a school in Asia Pacific that is well ranked, it came up as top of the list.  It was the first source that candidates went to to start their research. Google was second. And that's quite a shift to go from starting by Googling business schools and then finding rankings to the rankings becoming a primary source of information.

Another project we did on Executive MBA research with some focus groups, the candidates shared a lot of detail about the analysis they do on rankings data. So, it's not just looking at the list of who's the top five, top 10, top 100. They actually dig into all of the detail that's shared in the rankings, to help them discover more about the business schools. So, they're incredibly important in terms of that research. Then, of course, our research shows that when you're choosing a school and filtering which ones do I want to apply to, it is the primary factor. So, they look first at ‘I want to go to a ranked school’, alongside all of their other choice criteria, so they matter a lot.

Steph: That's a really interesting point and really interesting shift. And do you think rankings will continue to change and evolve?

Sarah: I think they will. Because I think at the end of the day schools themselves tend to have a love hate relationship with rankings, understanding the role they play to attract candidates, but at the same time, what business schools need to do to manage rankings, submit for rankings and so on. So, I think there's a continued pressure or a continued encouragement that business schools offer or provide or you know, leverage with the rankings publishers to evolve the criteria to what they see matters most. And at the same time, I think candidates as their needs and interests change, start looking for further information. For example, sustainability is a very big issue. The corporate responsibility ranking is suddenly getting more profile and is being used by more candidates and so on.

Steph: Rankings are so important. And it's such a contentious and hot topic at the moment. So is there anything else you would like to add? Anything else you'd want the listeners to know on rankings?

Sarah: I guess one of the other elements of rankings is what impact they have on schools, and perhaps to focus on a couple of the positive impacts or by products other than just where you end up in the rankings list. I think the first thing is they do encourage schools to put a very strong focus on the Career Service support they offer to their students. So, you know, that in itself is a benefit to students if they're getting an enhanced and richer Career Services support. So, that's worthwhile, but equally importantly, given the work that we do with alumni relations teams as another strand of what we do. They encourage schools to really focus on the effectiveness of their alumni relations. Because of course, you need to keep in touch with and cultivate relations with your graduates so that when they get the ranking survey, three years after graduation or whatever, that they are still in touch with you, they are going to speak of you with goodwill, and so on. And I think anything that encourages schools to invest in alumni relations is a good thing.

Stephanie Mullins-1Steph: Definitely, what a brilliant impact.

So, Matt, as the S of QS, your name is often related with the rankings, not surprisingly, now, the history of rankings is something that you know inside out, especially the business education rankings, so could you start by explaining how they began?

Matt: Yes, the ranking of business schools, you're right, my name seems to be inextricably linked with rankings, which given that sometimes I can't even list my three favourite songs or my three favourite movies, I'm not sure how qualified I am. But with QS and the World University Rankings, and for the last eight or nine years on Forbes, I've produced a ranking of MBA rankings that actually puts together the five major media rankings. And that's been fascinating how that sort of pulls together disparate results and sometimes very distinct methodologies that each of them use. So, one of my business partners, John Byrne, now the Editor in Chief of Poets and Quants, really got the world of business schools shaken up just over 30 years ago, back in the late 1980s. He published the first MBA ranking for Business Week. And he's certainly a very strong advocate for rankings, arguing that what started with Business Week and was quickly followed by US News, who decided just to rank the top US business schools, was then followed about 10 years later, with the Financial Times who started their first MBA ranking in 1999.

Another three years after that, and the Economist joined the fun, and Kurt Badenhausen at Forbes tells the wonderful story of when he first did a Forbes MBA ranking 22 years ago, it wasn't all digital online surveys, they actually sent out thousands and thousands of surveys to MBA graduates by regular mail, and then got this big postbag back with responses. So, you know, rankings of business schools have been with us for over 30 years, and have become tremendously influential, some people would grumble far too influential in that sometimes applicants can be over reliant on this fairly simple snapshot of where a school sits among its peers at any given time. So, like them or loath them, the rankings are here to stay.

Interestingly, I was invited to speak at an EFMD conference on the subject of rankings with Della Bradshaw, the former Business School's Editor at the FT. This was about four years ago, and I actually made the case, this was an audience of Master's in Management Programme Directors at the time, the FT had the only Master's in Management ranking that they would publish every year. And therefore, any school that participated in that ranking was sort of stuck with that monopoly, and just one result. So, the case that I made was, in fact, in that case, they needed more rankings, not less mindful of the school resources that are required for the data collection, everyone that's involved and how stakeholders might respond. But if you look at the level of visibility that the business school rankings have given to MBA programmes in the last 30 years, a reporter like Jonathan Moules once shared with me that on the day that their MBA ranking comes out in January every year, the spike in traffic is so high, that they actually have to remove that from the stats to give a more reliable figure of who's been reading which stories. So, you know, clearly it attracts great attention. And the MBA has really benefited from that in the last 25-30 years.

Of course, schools go up, schools go down, and when they go down, it can cause genuine concern among stakeholders, not least, alumni who have invested their time and money in the MBA education and they want to know why the school is not performing well, in these league tables, but, you know, it's given an unprecedent level of visibility to the MBA on a global scale. I think that's worth emphasising as well. You know, it's not just people in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles that are following this. You know, it's in New Delhi, it's in Beijing. It's in São Paulo. Around the world, people will follow these results.

Steph: Absolutely, I don't think we can underestimate their impact at all. As you say they're often the first place people go to. Sarah from Media Minds says potential students don't even Google schools first, they go straight to the rankings and then they do their research into different schools. I know you talked about when the rankings first began, and these huge bags of post turned up on the doorstep. And they had to go through all this material to find the data to actually create the rankings. Things have changed a lot now, not only in the methods and the way the rankings are done, but in the things that potential students care about. And so the rankings have to adapt, like CSR’s rising importance, and so things are definitely changing with the rankings. Do you think we can speculate at all about the rankings and how they're looking in the future?

MattMatt: I think we should, you know, for sure we'll always ask ourselves where might they be going next? But they should be treated with great caution and diligence and in recognising the limitations of methodologies. As you look at, certainly in the MBA market, the five dominant rankings, they go from the simplicity of Forbes that says, ‘Okay, we're just going to measure ROI, you know, five years out of school’, but has been the return on the investment that you made in, in your MBA, and that's purely monetary, all the way through to the Economist that has this very complex methodology with over 20 different points. They include subjective surveys, by alumni who, I guess have a self interest to see that their school does very well in these results. We mentioned earlier on that John Byrne had started all this with a Business Week ranking. And there's been, you know, a great deal of turmoil at Business Week in the last five years, as they have tweaked their methodology used to find and perhaps reflect the sort of applicants of Business School programmes today.  We see areas of CSR sustainability, and not just post MBA salaries but individuals that are looking for a sense of purpose in their studies. How do you measure something like that? The FT has been looking at how to best measure something like entrepreneurship. Well, are you an entrepreneur? If you have launched a unicorn that now has a billion dollar valuation, and employs many hundreds, if not thousands of people? Are you an entrepreneur, if you've done something part time? It could even be a restaurant delivery service that only has a team of three or four people so you know that those measures are very difficult. I was invited by the Wall Street Journal and Times Higher Ed to be involved in their own rankings project, they of course, have been involved in World University Rankings for many, many years. The Wall Street Journal is probably one of the best-read global newspapers, certainly for the business audience and a lot of interaction with individuals that are thinking about business school or the alumni that graduated from the top business schools. And it was it was a fascinating and extraordinarily challenging project. And I have to say, it was wonderful to see just how engaged, how informed, how outspoken schools were, it wasn't just we don't want another ranking. Plenty of them said that. But also, the detail and the nuance to that in terms of how they felt that rankings were distorting the markets, you know that the internal resources that it requires to be able to put together all of this data, yet another email that's going to a group of alumni that are already receiving surveys from other media. So, it was fascinating for me to really hear those voices and understand their concerns that they wanted look at the MBA, the Masters in Management, the Masters in Finance, and as you talk about, you know, the future of business education, you know, we've already seen in the last year or two, the MBA is going through a period of relative decline. But certainly European business schools are doing very well. But the US schools are struggling, perhaps more than historically. And at the same time, the Master's in Management is emerging. We're seeing more and more schools engaging with online MBAs. And so you know, thinking about how rankings will reflect some of the programmes. You know, if you look at the FT, they have many hundreds of schools that want to be in the top hundred of the MBA ranking. Last year, they only had 10 schools in an online MBA ranking. I'm pretty confident that four or five years from now, there will be 40-50 schools on that list in the same way we've seen with the Masters in Management. You know, they now have a full complement of schools when they first started the Masters and Management ranking. They only had 45 or 50.

So, you know, the rankings, I think will reflect also the programmes and where schools are going. What they then look to measure is always that great challenge. And when I was very fortunate to work with some very skilled and insightful data scientists, that we're trying to find quantifiable ways to assess teaching quality, to look at learning outcomes, to look at the value of networks, obviously, one of the common themes of the rankings is salaries. That's perhaps one of the most simple measures but even there, when you look at salaries and take into account exchange rates and purchasing power parity, and all of these things need to be taken into consideration. I mentioned earlier on the idea of entrepreneurship and how you measure that one. I think one of the thorniest, and certainly that we see with this current generation, you know, they're looking at business school and their future career aspirations and they want a sense of purpose, you know, I want to have a positive impact I want to do good. That's a very nebulous subject if you're trying to measure it in the ranking. So, you know, I hope that the FT, the Economist, US News, Business Week and Forbes, continue to hold that mirror up to themselves in terms of how relevant is what we're measuring, how transparent is it? How does it reflect where the market is going? So that it can ultimately provide a useful and informed snapshot as part of sort of research that future business school applicants go through? As they look for the right school, they always say, you know, there's no one best school, but that there might be a best school for you. And rankings can contribute to the sort of research and understanding of institutions and what they have to offer, but they really are just one part of a bigger picture.

Steph: Absolutely. I think anyone behind the rankings and anyone in schools looking to learn more about the rankings will have taken a lot of information from that. So thank you. Is there anything else that that you would want to talk about that you would want to say when it comes to the rankings?

Matt: Well, perhaps just one more thing. Actually, I could probably talk about the rankings for hours. So forgive me. And if you look at the coverage of business education, you know, I started earlier by saying, just how much visibility rankings have given to the MBA. The reality is that if you go back even 10 years, Business Week with their annual rankings, Business Week was producing three, four or five articles a week about business education. I was contributing some of those articles. The same thing with the Economist. I used to write about business education for the Economist, and they would again have you know, one or two articles coming through the week.  The FT, those that can remember that Monday supplement in the newspaper, it was a page or sometimes two pages. I think one of the real disappointments is that dedicated editorial coverage has really shrunk in the last seven, eight years, you've seen sites like Poets and Quants that have emerged to respond to that and share Business School News. But I think it's a real shame that there is so much less coverage from those media. I hope that they don't disengage. It was great at the MaKi conference that we held in London last year, to have the Business Week team from Bloomberg saying, in a business schools record audience, its readership. And, you know, we will use the rankings as a vehicle to now produce regular articles. And I really hope that that proves to be the case. And that even if we don't reach the editorial levels of perhaps seven or eight years ago, the rankings are just one point in a much wider coverage that these publications produce.

Adrian: I agree entirely. How many times we've been over this, the whole issue of rankings just generates so much passion, so much interest. It's one of those things that just never goes away. Never gets any lighter. Excellent interview with Sarah, some really good insight. But obviously some really great insight from you two. Everybody has a different perspective and it's great to get some of those voices and, and insights. But beyond rankings, the BlueSky Education Thinking podcasts, we're trying to cover many themes in upcoming podcasts. We're going to be looking at the issue of sustainability that's really gained a lot of ground on campuses across the world. A broader view of the future of business education and the disruption that it faces. We're going to be looking at the evolution of the Executive MBA, how you stand out from the competition, and of course social media and how that fits into a business school's communications campaign.

 

Listen to this and other episodes from the BlueSky Education Thinking podcast below.

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