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.