Saturday, May 27, 2006

Bachelor of Business

A significant development in undergraduate business education around the world over the last decade or so has been the growth of Bachelor of Business (B.Bus) Degrees. These degrees have the stated (and laudable) intention of giving students a broad-based education in business skills.

While this intention is admirable there is controversy about whether commercially-oriented motives to build-up student numbers have in fact led universities to teaching dumbed-down generic curricula that provide few immediately relevant vocational skills and no general analytical skills that will help managers solve business and other problems when they do encounter them. Cheerleaders for these programs often use the word ‘breadth’ a lot. Cynics often see this as their euphemistic way of indicating a preference for low analytical content programs that teach people a very little about a lot. Detractors specifically criticize B.Bus programs for failing to teach analytical skills and the ability to think abstractly about complex problems so that they can be simplified and dealt with tractably.

In particular there are difficulties in teaching courses in management to students with little or no business experience. The management units taught, it is sometimes claimed, can degenerate into gobbledygook and psychobabble.

Is this all changing? An Business Week article suggests that, in the US, the B.Bus degree is acquiring new prestige and even stealing market share from conventional MBA programs. The article itself is worthy of study as is the whole Business Week approach to analyzing the teaching of undergraduate and MBA style business degrees. One quote from the article about the various programs stood out:
‘There are those, including many at or near the top of the list, that are following a rigorously academic model, with a heavy emphasis on economics, statistics, finance, and accounting. Programs like Wharton's fall into this group, which generally do not require - or give credit for - internships, even though many students get them on their own. They also use MBA teaching methods such as case studies, simulations, and team projects.

But at the great majority of business programs, students are exposed to less business theory - too little, in the view of some experts - and a heavy dose of practical training. A quarter century ago, virtually every business program in America followed the latter model. At top schools that's no longer the case. ‘What
you're seeing is a polarization’, says Barbara E. Kahn, director of Wharton's undergraduate business division. ‘This is different from what it was 25 years ago. It wasn't the academic experience it is today’.’

This is a positive sign to me. If B.Bus programs can come to emphasise the teaching of core skills in economics, statistics, finance and accounting in a rigorous academic setting they will certainly provide a real service. Emphasising purely vocational training in universities misrepresents the core competencies of universities and misunderstands the nature of the market for business managers.

This does not mean that business case studies should not be used. To the contrary such studies are a valuable way of teaching and illustrating theory. But the core theoretical content needs to be there in the first place. A single course in microeconomics and a few weeks of game theory are not enough to provide undergraduates with an intelligent appreciation of the role of the decision sciences in business.

One useful way for Australian B.Bus programs to up their game would be to study the characteristics and curricula of the top-ranking US undergraduate schools.

I got some extra research money recently so I’ll try to get a survey of some sort done. I’ll report back here when I do.


conrad said...

Its fairly obvious that Australian undergraduate degrees are never going to reach even close to the good quality US ones (perhaps it is different in Business departments where you can rely on the OS market, but it seems a fair conclusion to say that the trend is down everywhere else). Here is an obvious list of reasons why Australian universities will never make it in the current climate:

a) they don't have enough money to get really good staff
b) they don't have enough money to get enough staff
c) even if they had enough money for staff, they wouldn't have enough money to support staff research
d) Tons more red tape
e) Poor administration at many universities including vaious Stalineque rules
f) Poor administration by the government including various Stalinesque rules
g) Deliberate targeting of the idiot market, which is basically enforced by staff having to get good marks on student satisfication surveys
h) Too many Australian students don't want to do any serious work to get their degrees, and this is is the level you must teach at to satisfy outcome requirements (X% should pass, students should feel happy...)

Since that only took 10 seconds to generate, I'll just assume there are some I missed.

The only escape that appears possible is that some of the rich universities (like Melbourne and UWA) privatise and basically get rid of most undergraduate education. The quality of the vastly smaller numbers (presumably then paying US-style fees) might be higher, in which case courses might able to be taught at a decent level and not result in large amounts of failures. It would be interesting to see whether the Australian public would put up with such a system.

Anonymous said...

All that may be the case, but it
doesn't explain why the several students I've taught who are either American or have studied in the US have all indicated that Uni in Australia is comparable to the US.

The comparison being between unis such as Columbia and Penn State versus Monash.

I think there is an erroneous tendency to compare Australian universities and the top universities in the States such as Harvard and MIT. Yes, the average graduate from these universities is superior to any Australian university's graduates, but in my opinion, that's a simple selection effect. The students at MIT/Harvard etc are the cream of the crop and Australia just doesn't have a population large enough to create a university with that calibre of student.

And of course in my opinion, Conrad's list of reasons could easily be transposed to many US universities at least according to the US academics I've met who don't belong to that elite body of universities.

hc said...

I am less pessimistic than you Conrad. There is reasonable academic freedom in Australia and I think reasonable standards. And I don't think we should slavishly follow the US example but we can learn.

Old fashioned economics degrees are now less popular than more generic business degrees. I dislike this but it is a fact of life. Given that this trend exists how do we get good BBus degrees.

I think it is interesting to note thast the best US schools are moving in the direction of non-idiosyncratic academic programs of the type I would support.

I agree with you on the resources issue. We just must keep pressing politicians and publicising our case for more funding.

I think Melbourne would die without full-fee undergraduates - as would most Australian universities.

conrad said...

I think Melbourne would die without OS students too -- in fact, I wonder if OS students are in fact Victoria's largest foreign cash generator (?).

I'm sure they must be close, which makes how far down the political list universities rate as quite surprising (with a fair chunk of the mentions that garner media attention coming under the bad publicitiy category). It'll be interesting to see what happens if countries like Singapore start taking that market away. I'm sure some crocodile tears will be shed.

I'm not sure if I agree with "reasonable academic standards" -- its hard to judge, and I presume it depends a lot on the particular area and even department.

What I would like to see is something like the international education comparison (TIMS) done with university students.

Anonymous : I agree with you about the poorer US universities -- my comparison is to the initial "top" standard as mentioned -- I can't see how one can compete with staff/student ratios less than 10 and far less buracracy. If one could, then that would show the top US universities are doing an aweful job given their advantages.

Also, I wouldn't take student satisfcation as a great measure of how good a course was. It loads on too many factors like humourousness of the staff, ease of the courses etc. that don't really have much to do with what is actually learnt.

Anonymous said...

Australia is the fastest growing destination for foreign students, up from 50,000 in 1997 to a quarter million today. They’ve now captured 10-percent of the world market for students seeking an English language education and gained ground on their rivals in the United States and Britain.
-Paul (

hc said...

Paul, I followed up the reference and have no reason to nsuppose it is incorrect but couldn't find anything official anywhere.

I think the dependence of the Australian universities on foreign students is dangerous. Note too that this market is threatened by the commodity boom that keeps the Aussie dollar high.

Truck and Barter becoming a very, good blog. I've got to spend more time there.

Anonymous said...


I wasn't referring to student satisfaction I was referring to student perceptions of standards. For example one student who indicated that it was easier to get an A at Columbia than at Monash and looking at the US News rankings for National Universities, Columbia comes in at equal 9th. So I don't see us as that far behind in some ways.

As another example, a friend of mine who worked in New York in IT had many colleagues from MIT, pretty all of which he thought were real hotshots, but all of which also agreed that MIT does nothing miraculous in their teaching, it's just the high quality of the students there that make the difference. If you gave me a class of students all of whom had an ENTER of 95 plus, (which is probably lower than the equivalent to get in to MIT), I know that it would be the most amazing class and that I could go much faster, further and deeper.

Check it out for yourself, MIT put a lot of their course material on line, it's good stuff, but nothing I haven't seen done in universities around Australia.

Much as I like my students, the great majority wouldn't get in to MIT and it's never likely that I will teach in an Australian university where that is the case, seeing as I don't teach medicine or law.

I agree with you that staff/student ratios make a difference, having recently gone from a 16:1 tutorial ratio to a 25:1 tutorial ratio, it makes a significant difference to my helping the students learn.

But red-tape bureaucracy, yes it's bad here in Australia, but I see no evidence that it is any different in US universities, you only have to read some academic bloggers from the US to realise that.

I also agree with Harry that the dependence on foreign students is very dangerous, you only have to look at the effect on the Monash Faculty of IT to realise that.

Tanya said...

There is a terrible myopia in Australian business education. Business leaders, government administrators, students and their families, and even business schools do not seem to understand that business does not happen in a vacuum. The top American undergrad business programs all require their students to undertake required and elective courses in arts and sciences.

Courses in philosophy, political science, sociology, history, as well as the very obvious economics, are known to be the best way to develop thinking and communication skills. These courses are all the more helpful when taken as small (10-20 student) seminars. Neither Australian students nor their parents seem to get this and there is a serious lack of leadership from the business schools and central administrations.

Resources are a major issue, particularly re faculty/student ratios. However, Australian business schools don’t need more government funding, they need more corporate funding. Corporations need to stop whining about the quality of Aus graduates and seriously put their money where their mouths are. It would also help if Aus corporate leaders developed a more sophisticated understanding of liberal education.

Corporate funding (whether from corporate coffers or owners’ own funds) largely explains the success of US business schools. It produces the conditions that lure the bright kids.

This is an aside, but the explanation for MIT’s success is overstated. I don’t know if you have ever spent any time at MIT but it is a truly unique institution. The faculty and the structure in which they work are amazingly good. They demonstrate a flexibility not seen or possible in many institutions. MIT thinks their physics, chem., engineering, etc students should do courses in English lit, existential philosophy, and hundreds of other subjects that Aus universities and their horrendous government administrators have deemed as vocationally useless. Ah well, the best Aus students should just head to MIT: many of them will get a free ride and a better education.

conrad said...

Anonymous, I think the differentiation of the good versus the bad comes in a few different areas.

1) Later year courses, where staff that really know their fields are neccesary.

2) Student services. If you don't understand something at these universities (e.g., statistics), you can get help far more easily than universities that have fewer staff. Many of these small student/staff ratio universities basically have an open door policy for staff (i.e., you are obliged to help students). This service is only going to affect some proportion of students that are motivated enough to use such services, but it is terrific for those that need it. Its also great for enthusiastic students in some subjects.

3) Far more enthusiastics staff that don't constantly complain about their conditions.

4) Fewer really bad staff.

Also, I still don't pay much attention to student marks, perceptions etc -- they are all too variable. Some universities simply give high marks to everyone, and others dont. I've worked in departments that do and don't do this, and it had basically no correlation with what students actually learnt. The main correlation was in student perceptions.

That's why I think the only real data would be similar to the TIMS test for high school students -- or at least compare results from potentially compareable subjects across univerisities( of which there are many at 3rd year -- physics, maths etc.). I'm sure government organizations and so on that run their own testing as a job entry requirement must have this sort of information, so it must be out there.