Alternative Futures For Business Schools In South Africa

BY Millard Arnold, May 3 2022


Alternative Futures


Business Schools


South Africa



Millard W. Arnold

Chief Executive

South African Business Schools Association




Following decades of enthusiastic, if not rabid support, business schools now find themselves under attack for being irrelevant, inconsequential, or simply of little real value in developing business leaders that make a meaningful difference.  In no small part, this is as a consequence of the extraordinary metamorphous currently underway which will fundamentally reshape the nature of work and how we prepare for the new environment which it will create.

The World Economic Forum predicts that “by 2020, more than a third of the desired core skill sets of most occupations will be comprised of skills that are not yet considered crucial to the job today.”

Late last year, Michael Mankins, a partner in Bain & Company writing in the Harvard Review noted that “new innovations will change the basis of competition in many markets and alter the sources of advantage for most companies. Business-critical roles—that is, the jobs that are central to differentiating a company from its competitors and successfully executing its strategy—will also change” Most critically, he adds, “companies will be forced to rethink the talent they will need to play these business-critical roles in the future.”

For business schools, the implications are enormous.  If these changes are to take place in less than a decade, the challenge for business schools everywhere is how to develop the courses, programmes and initiatives which will align with the needs of business in to years’ time. With 18 highly diverse member schools with varying strengthens, objectives and strategic approaches, the South African Business Schools Association (SABSA), understands this imperative and has commissioned a study to assess the way forward given the complexity of the societal, educational and business landscape confronting the management education sector in South Africa.

In reviewing the milieu which shapes decisions and policies, the SABSA study entitled, “Alternative Futures for Business Schools in South Africa”, sifted through a range of concerns from the country’s current stagnant economic environment, to rising societal expectations and the fluctuating ideological shifts in the political space.  Add to that the changes in student demands, rapid technological advances and a cumbersome regulatory and institutional environment, business schools are hard pressed to structure a meaningful, coherent formula that addresses the capricious needs of its principal stakeholders, namely business and students.

Against this backdrop, it is easy to understand why those unaware of the complexities facing business schools are quick to opine that business education is in decline.  To develop courses that mirror the rapidly changing demands of its stakeholders while offering a quality MBA endorsed by the Council on Higher Education (CHE), is difficult in the extreme.  Course development requires approval from the CHE which, given its mandate to address the educational concerns of grade school learners to post graduates, can take years to obtain. The juggling act which most business schools entertain is how to predict and project the learning needs of future business leaders against a precipitously evolving environment of enormous uncertainty.

The commoditization of management education in the forms of MOOCs “mico-masters” designed to address narrow, specific needs, and the significance of understanding big data and artificial intelligence are some of the uncertainties currently being tackled by business schools in South Africa as are the future of work, edutourism as a potential lucrative revenue stream, and integrated educational journeys with more flexible offerings for working students.

Against these concerns, the SABSA study did suggest that unless business schools adopted lean cost management, tech-enabled alternative models for delivery and form strategic collaborations and partnerships, they would face increasingly difficult obstacles in trying to fashion a winning strategy which addressed the long-term needs of business and aspiring business leaders.

But more importantly, what the study also noted is that a concentrated, coherent and thoughtful engagement with society and the business community could yield extremely favorable results. “By positioning themselves as a partner for inclusive development”, the report goes on to say, “business schools are able to enhance their social license among citizens and societal stakeholders….so too, the business community views schools as beacon of excellence, opening avenues to relevant, game-changing ways of doing business, helping them navigate the competitive landscape within which they operate….”

And despite the nay-sayers, South African business schools are extremely competitive, offering insights into transformation, issues of inequity and the unique demands of emerging economies that few other schools have been able to adequately address.  Although they may not seem to be cross-cutting and innovative thinking, these issues represent a nagging apprehension regarding morality, ethical behaviour and trust and are reflective of a global environment in which business schools are expected to establish standards of integrity and principles.  Change is inevitable, but South African business schools are energetically and aggressively squaring up to the challenge.