14 Apr Interview with Andrew Main Wilson, CEO, the Association of MBAs and the Business Graduates Association (AMBA & BGA)
Prisma Reports (PR): To begin the interview, could you introduce AMBA and describe its role?
Andrew Main Wilson (AMW): Our full title is AMBA & BGA: the Association of MBAs and the Business Graduates Association. AMBA currently accredits 283 business schools in over 70 countries and has 55,000 student and graduate MBA members. If you are studying for an MBA at, or are an MBA graduate of, an AMBA-accredited school, then your membership as an individual student or graduate is free of charge, so it’s obviously very popular.
Our strategy is that we will limit the AMBA accredited schools network to 300 schools, so they’re very much in the top 2% of business schools worldwide. There is a market estimate of 16,000 business schools worldwide, but that includes some very small and marginal schools. The real market of business schools is probably around 8,000.
We launched the Business Graduates Association (BGA) in January 2019. Whereas AMBA accredits only specific MBA programs and masters in management programs, BGA accredits the entire business school. BGA has grown from no schools in January 2019 to 142 member schools today. It’s growing very fast, from a standing start, and it particularly focuses on championing the cause for responsible management and the impact of degree programs in terms of enhancing employment opportunities.
We also offer student and graduate membership of BGA. We only launched this six months ago, and it has already attracted 3,000 members. This membership is also free of charge, if you are a student or graduate of a BGA member school.
AMBA was founded in 1967 and originally called the Business Graduates Association. It began to focus specifically on MBAs in 1987. We mothballed the BGA brand for 52 years and it is very satisfying to see it grow so rapidly in less than two years.
(PR): The importance of MBA studies and programs has experienced a massive growth since AMBA was founded. Broadly speaking, how have MBA programs changed over the years and, in your view, how can global business leadership help tackle the world’s most pressing challenges?
(AMW): I’ve always believed that we shouldn’t leave changing the world just to political and military leaders. The world’s business communities can arguably achieve the biggest changes, because businesses fund everything. You can only generate taxes from individuals or from corporations if businesses make profits. The business community, significantly over the last five years, has started to realize this and take on the responsibility for making the world a better place through better business practice. I think the global collective conscience of business leaders now recognizes the crucial importance of the United Nation’s (UN’s) 17 Sustainable Development Goals. The global business school community has a huge role to play in championing the 17 UN SDGs and preparing fit-for-purpose future business leaders who are both commercially astute and ethically responsible.
The first MBA programs were created just over 100 years ago, focused largely on developing future business leaders to build profitable business organizations. Now I believe MBA programs are much broader in scope, balancing responsible management, inspirational leadership and commercial skills development. The MBA is much more of an all-round, “21st-century-ready” management qualification than it ever has been before.
This evolution has helped maintain the global popularity of the MBA, which has proved remarkably resilient, both during economic boom periods and economic downturns, such as the 2008 financial crisis and the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. When you think about all the world’s educational qualifications outside of medicine and science, the MBA is probably the world’s best-known education brand name.
Some people speculate about the future demise of the MBA, but all of our quantitative research demonstrates the opposite. We’ve just completed our annual enrollment survey featuring well over 200 AMBA business schools. 2019 applications increased 7% year on year and enrollments were on a par with 2018. 2020 enrollments have been remarkably strong too, especially when we take into account the economic chaos caused by coronavirus.
While there has been a slight decline in full-time MBA students, part-time student enrollments have continued to grow strongly in most markets, particularly in dynamic, developing nations.
(PR): The MBA tradition enjoys a good reputation in the U.S. and Europe as well as some parts of Asia. What is happening in developing economies in this respect?
(AMW): The fastest growth in the MBA has undoubtedly been in China and, to a certain extent, India. It’s not always known as the MBA in India. It’s a master’s degree, but it is the same program. By way of example, we now accredit more schools in China than we do in the U.K. We accredit 43 schools in China and 42 schools in the U.K.
(PR): COVID-19 presented new obstacles to economies, governments, businesses and schools worldwide. What major initiatives did AMBA take to support business schools through this challenging period and what were the major lessons learned?
(AMW): We transformed our business model literally overnight, adapting from 100% on-campus accreditation panel visits all over the world, to conducting all our accreditations virtually through video conferencing. Likewise, we instantly adapted all our global conferences from physical face-to-face events to virtual events.
Our financial year that ended 30 September 2020 showed very strong growth in the number of AMBA and BGA schools in our network. We also increased our cash reserves year on year. This is further proof that the MBA and masters in management programs market has remained remarkably buoyant.
This highlights two market trends. Firstly, demand for MBA programs — and for many masters in management programs — is countercyclical to the economic climate. The weaker the global economy, the higher market demand grows for high-quality business education. Young business executives realize that in a tough job market you need to be even better educated than your rivals. They want to ensure that if there are any redundancies or promotions, they’re going to emerge from such changes strongly.
Secondly, most high-quality business schools transformed remarkably quickly from 100% face-to-face on-campus teaching to hybrid teaching, or even 100% online teaching. One of the few benefits arising from COVID, is the acceleration of digital education transformation by three or four years. Now, the next multi-million-dollar question is what is going to happen when COVID is finished? What will prove to be enduring in terms of the digital transformation of learning? To what extent will business schools revert to face-to-face on-campus learning.
In my view, much of the digital transformation toward blended learning or 100% online learning will be permanent. However, nostalgia for face-to-face human interaction and genuine belief among many deans and their students that face-to-face learning is superior and more desirable than online learning will mean that business school campuses will witness a strong return to classroom learning.
What every education organization needs to do is think where on that scale between 100% face-to-face learning and 100% digital online learning they are going to position their products and programs. At AMBA & BGA, we are ensuring that all our accreditation assessments, services and conferences fit comfortably anywhere along that scale.
I believe the market will polarize into two types of learning. University undergraduate degrees and post-graduate master’s degrees will largely be delivered face to face on university campuses again. There will be more blended learning than ever before, but I don’t see those degrees suddenly turning overnight into 100% online learning degrees. We can all see how many students are missing their first time away from home experience by not being on campus. They don’t want to sit at home with mom and dad, or in rented accommodation all on their own, doing a three-year degree course. Social networking and face-to-face tuition with professors is a key part of an undergraduate degree experience. That’s also true, for slightly different reasons, for master’s degrees, where the social networking to build your network of business contacts is very important.
What I think will change significantly, is post-university ‘rest-of-life’ learning. A mature MBA student graduates at around the age of 30, with a 30-40 year career ahead of them. Much of that annual, ‘just-in-time’ refresher learning will now be delivered online. We are encouraging all our business schools to create post-graduation lifelong learning modules, particularly in fast-changing subjects like IT and marketing.
(PR): We are in the midst of a digital revolution. We are seeing the rise of automation, artificial intelligence (AI) and big data. These major trends are completely disrupting workplaces, education and the way we do business. How are business leaders going to have to adapt to these big ideas over the next few years?
(AMW): A good MBA program already includes modules on AI, big data and digital marketing. The key focus of an MBA program is to develop talented, young business executives by preparing them for future leadership roles. Once an MBA reaches a senior leadership position, their role is to lead the organization and recruit specialist experts in the fields of AI, big data and digital marketing.
To be a successful leader, the human skills, the emotional intelligence skills and the ability to charm and persuade people are not that impacted by technology.
Employers naturally expect a good business school will teach you the rudiments of finance, strategy, marketing, operations, IT and big data — they are additionally looking for evidence that the MBA graduate can lead their organization through inspiration, persuasion and innovative strategic foresight.
Ultimately, when you get to a high level of seniority, you are running the organization. IT is enabling the organization, but not leading it. Business graduates should ensure they have a comprehensive and contemporary understanding of AI and big data, while choosing a career path that is less likely to be taken over by computers.
(PR): One of the major topics of the day is climate change and sustainability. You recently launched a research project to look at business school responses to climate change. What are your findings so far and what are the most important takeaways?
(AMW): Virtually every school in the AMBA and BGA networks is trying to incorporate some or all of the Sustainable Development Goals in the modules that comprise their MBA or other master’s programs. It is important that business students and science students can work together to create environmentally friendly, sustainable products, which are no more expensive for consumers to buy than existing products. Consumers are more reluctant to switch to environmentally friendly products when there is a price premium to pay.
Most students feel passionate about trying to make a difference to society, but can feel slightly overwhelmed when they look at all 17 SDGs. I recommend to students that they should choose two or three of the SDGs — those where they feel they can make the biggest contribution toward improving life on earth.
Unfortunately COVID-19 has inevitably distracted people short term. It’s vital that once the pandemic is over, we all refocus our efforts on sustainability and responsible management once again.