The Master of Business Administration degree is globally one of the most popular degrees to register for. Deemed to be the ticket into many a high-profile corporate, professionals from almost every walk of life diligently seek this qualification. Harvard Business School (HBS) in Boston in the United States is arguably the most revered business school in the world, boasting a host of very famous alumni. Environmental activist and former vice president Al Gore, co-founder and CEO of Microsoft Bill Gates, actors Natalie Portman and Matt Damon are just a few of the institution’s famous names. Harvard[ZG1] , whose President, Drew Faust, is the first woman to hold the position in the institution’s 380 years, continues to stay relevant through offering programmes that are of a world-class standard.

In South Africa, you need to at least have an average of R150 000 saved up before you can even think of signing up for an MBA. And, if you want to go to the business school that holds the top spot for reputation amongst employers according to Financial Mail’s market research, in this case the Gordon Institute of Business Science (University of Pretoria), then you’re looking at a figure in the R230k range. Obviously, not everyone can afford this which is why Wits Business (WBS) introduced a scholarship programme for MBA’s back in 2014, and it’s one that has benefitted a total of 26 students so far. At the announcement of 2016’s scholarship recipients, Head of WBS, Professor Steve Bluen reiterated that, “while we as a nation struggle with ever-increasing wealth disparity and rising inequality, we remain totally committed to transformation and to investing in the future leaders of our economic hub of Africa.”

So, what’s the big deal about having a business school degree over a tertiary one? When Ndalo Media owner, Khanyi Dhlomo came back with her Harvard Business School MBA back in 2007, the concept of a business school really piqued our interest as a nation. Managing Director of Dimension Data West Africa and Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) MBA alumni, Olebogeng Glad Dibetso, says one of the things he is most grateful for about his MBA is that it’s “a business network that is always willing to resolve business challenges.” Networking is one of those things that you can’t put a price tag on and having access to fellow business school graduates opens up an entire new playing field. And having won the international MBA student of the year award in 2013, Dibetso is an example of how doors can be opened through acquiring the qualification. Communications practitioner at GIBS, Luleka Mtongana-Mzamo says that, “although the information to start or run a business is freely available on the Internet or through various online sources, it is the interaction in the classroom with the faculty and fellow classmates that opens up a network and world of choice for our alumni.” This year alone, GIBS has produced 489 graduates of Masters in Business Administration, the Postgraduate Diploma in Business Administration (PDBA) as well as the Doctorate in Business Administration (DBA).  The institution’s most esteemed alumni include, former CEO of Barclays Africa Kennedy Bungane, CEO of Busara Leadership Dudu Msomi and CEO of M-Net, Yolisa Phahle.

Business schools have been the flavour of the corporate game in South Africa for a couple of years now, but what does it really mean to have this kind of qualification? Zamahlasela Gabela finds the answers…

Vuyelwa Mtimkulu who is one the programme directors at Henley Business School South Africa says that business school students have a different focus compared to that of university students. “They have the business and life experience that an undergraduate wouldn’t have. Business school students have a sense of where they want to be,” she says. Mtimkulu has been a facilitator at Henley Business School since 2013, and she feels that, “as a facilitator teaching emotional intelligence and self-awareness in the work space, it’s great to see how students then link this learning to other spheres in their lives, such as home situations.”

Business school seems to add an extra layer to what you have already learned at tertiary level and/or in a working environment. “The GIBS MBA candidates are screened very carefully to ascertain what they can bring to the classroom in terms of experience and insight,” says Mtongana-Mzamo. What[ZG2]  you learn outside of a conventional tertiary schooling environment can bring so much more to the table. And when you take that experience and put it into a pool with other experienced minds, the possibilities are endless. She further adds that, “the MBA curriculum creates an opportunity for students to become well-rounded and effective managers by exploring the dimensions of strategy, the business environment, functional areas of business and decision-making techniques.” She has also worked with institutions such as Financial Services Board (FSB) and[ZG3]  Sanlam to facilitate programmes that are meaningful in both the South African and global context.

A business school qualification attracts a certain kind of individual that usually falls into one of three categories: career migration, switching or acceleration. Migrators are those who know that they want to try something completely different but aren’t sure exactly what it is. A business school qualification helps them decide just how they make this move. Switchers are similar to migrators except they know exactly which career they want to change to and need the extra layer of having a business school qualification. “They’re often individuals who’ve decided to start their own business, or are professionals, such as engineers, who want to shift their focus to general management,” adds Mtongana-Mzamo. Accelerators seek to move up the corporate ladder of their industry or within their company. In order to be able to understand exactly where you fit in, you need the right business school to give you the right tools. Dean of Henley Business School South Africa Jon Foster-Pedley says, ““A good business school offers experiences from executive coaching, trips to see best practice in China, USA and Europe, programmes to develop managers and leaders from beginners to international CEO’s, developing innovation, execution and strategic skills, growing your own ventures and businesses successfully, and of course, MBA as doctorates. My tip is go to a triple accredited school with international credibility if you can. Build your future on rock.”

Tackling a business school qualification usually means having to manage your time properly. Dibetso says that, “while my MBA was challenging, it was also a lot of fun that enabled me to build a solid business network and I am amazed at the value of that network post MBA.”

Outside of the USA – “the home of the MBA” – South Africa was the first country to introduce the degree in 1949. Since then thousands of South Africans have attained the qualification, and many more still seek to acquire it. Henley Business School in Johannesburg holds the top position across the globe for the most gender-balanced faculty body. 47% of the students enrolled are women. Musicians Johnny Clegg and Loyiso Bala, as well as Kaizer Chiefs defender Tsepo Masilela, are all alumni of this leading institution.

You might ask how profitable running a business school is? GIBS is a non-profit organisation by virtue of it being an extension of a public university  Foster-Pedley says that, “business schools need to be profitable or they won’t grow and improve (or be a good example), but they have to use that profit well.” To him it’s a circle that allows everyone to grow and become better if the profit is used positively. “Growth of profit is ploughing it back to create more, better, accessible learning so that, in Henley’s vision, we can build the people, who build the businesses, that build Africa,” he explains.

Globally, business schools are lucrative. News site Poets & Quants, which reports solely on business school news and findings, reports that Harvard Business School’s total revenue last year came to a significant $707 million. What’s even more astounding is that, of this revenue, only 17% comes from tuition fees. The rest comes from executive education, philanthropy and the selling of case studies.

At the end of the day you are the only one who can decide for yourself whether going to business school is worth it or not. But an MBA might just be the push you need to launch into a world of unexplored opportunities.

Top 5 South African Business Schools (amongst graduates)

These rankings come from Financial Mail’s latest research regarding graduates’ sentiments towards business schools.

  1. Gordon Institute of Business Science – University of Pretoria
  2. University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business
  3. University of Stellenbosch Business School
  4. Wits Business School – University of the Witwatersrand
  5. Henley Business School

 Top 5 Business Schools in the World

The United States of America still holds the record here, with 43 business schools ranked in the top 200 of the world’s ranking. They hold three spots in the top five, based on the QS world university rankings by subject.

  1. Harvard Business School
  2. London Business School
  3. INSEAD
  4. Stanford Graduate School of Business
  5. University of Pennsylvania