Ian Harper, dean of the top-ranked Melbourne Business School for reputation, says the school has an established reputation. The school has benefited from its structure, he adds. “Broadly speaking there are three elements; one is the relationship with the business community, the others are the quality of the students and the quality of academics.” These elements combine to create a self-reinforcing virtuous circle, he says, which for Melbourne Business School began in the 1980s when the Melbourne business community decided to fund a world-class business school, part of the university but an independent institution.
The resulting company is limited by guarantee; the university casts 45 per cent of the votes at annual general meetings, and it has four ex-officio members of the board. Representatives of the early funders and other large donors collectively elect ten donor members.
The only business school in Australia with a corporate structure of this nature, Melbourne Business School is governed jointly by the university and the business community, Harper says, which serves to ensure quality and relevance and ultimately reputation.
To stay ahead of the game and boost a reputation for digital education, the school dipped into its endowment for the first time recently to invest $20 million in the transformation of both hardware and pedagogy. Digital-born students expect the business school to be equally connected and conversant with new digital technologies, Harper says.
The business school hosts the Digital News Academy, a joint Google-News Ltd initiative which brings senior journalists into the ambit of students creating a self-reinforcing mix of talent and engagement, Harper says. “Success breeds success,” he adds. “I can burnish the reputation of the school by building these connections.”
Monash business school dean Simon Wilkie says the “sizeable investment” of a business school course – with fees of up to $52,000 a year – means the school’s reputation and its international rankings are keenly scrutinised by prospective international students.
“It’s very crowded and very competitive,” he says of the upper ranking levels. “Largely it’s a war for talent. This year, for example, because it’s been very difficult to get talent into Australia, basically we had to fight off being raided by Melbourne. Our faculty get offers from Cambridge, Oxford, Arizona – so we’re constantly trying to keep our best academics.”
Australian universities have spent more than a decade investing in the quality of the faculty to facilitate the move up the various ranking scales, Wilkie adds – a long-term strategy that has substantially paid off. The pressure on business schools to maintain a burnished reputation can be intense, largely because lucrative business schools generate a substantial slice of university revenue.
Domestic students, Wilkie says, rely more on word of mouth and the domestic reputation of the university, and they are influenced by specialised courses on offer. “For international students it’s much more on the reputation of the university and the reputation of the business school,” he says. Monash business school, he is pleased to note, is ranked 17th in the world by the widely-accepted US News & World Report rankings, slotted between Princeton and Cambridge.
A business school’s reputation is fragile, Wilkie adds. “Because our disciplines don’t require expensive labs that become anchors, we’re quite mobile,” he says, noting that an exodus of senior academics can be fatal.
He received his doctorate some years ago from Rochester University in the US, then ranked in the top ten. Unfortunately the university’s endowment was tied up in Eastman Kodak stock and when it lost financial ground, the university had trouble warding off recruiting raids from Princeton and Stanford. “They didn’t have the money to respond, so it was like sharks in the water,” Wilkie says. “The end can come quite quickly if you don’t have the resources to support it.”
University of Queensland business school dean Brent Ritchie says reputation is “crucial” for business schools and rankings play a considerable part in influencing reputation. “We focus on excellence and continual improvement, and that’s the key.”
Various international ranking systems use different data-sets and methodologies, and the findings are fairly consistent, he adds. “Some of those rankings have international employer ranking data,” Ritchie says, noting that QS and the Times Higher Education rankings include employer data from Australia and abroad, a metric he thinks is extremely important.
The ongoing global war for talent across many sectors and industries has made it increasingly difficult to attract and retain good academics and it has piled the pressure on business schools. Some school leaders crack: the former dean of the Fox business school at Temple University in Pennsylvania, Moshe Porat, was sentenced to 14 months in prison earlier this year for falsifying data to boost the school’s US News Report ranking.
Besides rankings, Ritchie says, prospective students rely on social media and testimonials, adding that Chinese students join WeChat groups to compare notes on universities. “Social media is making more of an impact; testimonials and videos are important. Students need to see it for themselves.”
“We invest in our staff and we invest in teaching excellence, I think that speaks volumes,” he says, adding that UQ has won more national awards for teaching than any other Australian university. “We’re a research-intensive university but we’re very passionate about our teaching.”
Sydney University business school dean Greg Whitwell says the reputation of the business school he leads is tightly linked to the sterling reputation of the broader university. “The University of Sydney has a prestige factor that comes from being Australia’s oldest university; that resonates powerfully with the Chinese market in particular,” he says, adding that over 70 per cent of the school’s students are international.
The university’s ornate sandstone buildings, the atmospheric quad, the sweeping lawns, all in a city that’s top of mind for people abroad – an “iconic city with iconic landmarks”, give the “USyd” brand immense power, Whitwell says. “Combine that with the high rankings that make it clear we are one of the world’s leading universities, then it’s a fairly potent combination.”
Student numbers are telling, he adds. The business school’s Master of Commerce degree is the largest coursework degree in the southern hemisphere, he says, with about 7000 students enrolled annually over the past three years, and the most expensive, costing international students as much as $52,000 a year (this Master degree usually earns the university almost $300 million annually).
“For almost ten years we’ve had phenomenal growth in student enrolment numbers, obviously with a dip in 2020 but that’s the only year it’s happened,” Whitwell says. “This suggests that students are more than satisfied with the experience they’re getting from us, they feel they’re getting value for money.”
The school has outstanding facilities, he adds. “We’ve spent a lot of money providing the infrastructure so that our faculty can provide an engaging student experience by using technology much more effectively. We’ve invested heavily in peer learning and work-integrated learning.”
International accreditation is a measure students and academics set great store by, and the universities with the strongest reputations often have multiple international credentials.
Australian university business schools look to both the US-based Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) and the European Foundation for Management Development (EFMD), which awards the European Quality Improvement System (EQUIS). Most top business schools have both credentials, which boosts their reputation internationally and keeps them up to the mark by way of a process of regular reaccreditation.
“To be accredited by both is very, very powerful, there’s no doubt about that,” Whitwell says. “Getting accredited is not easy, and you have to go through a process regularly of being reaccredited. It’s very much a signifier of quality and quality assurance.” A third credential is awarded by the UK-based Association of MBAs (AMBA), and to achieve all three accreditations is considered significant, Whitwell adds, noting that one per cent of business schools globally have this triple crown.
The key to building on a solid reputation is continual improvement, he says: “It’s so easy to trash a brand, you have to keep working at it the whole time”.
Director of the Australian Graduate School of Management at the University of NSW Nick Wailes believes reputation is built over time and it can easily be eroded.
“We have to always be thinking about how we build our reputation, how we continue to focus on quality, because ultimately reputation is result of doing things well.” It’s a long-term project, he adds, with responsibility shared across the whole organisation.
While rankings play an important role, Wailes notes there is a danger in focusing exclusively on the views of others. “We take rankings very seriously, we think it’s an important external assessment of what we’re doing, but I think it’s not the only thing,” he says. “Our focus is on doing the best job we possibly can, ensuring that we’re always innovating and building new capability. In part, the ranking will take care of itself if you do that.”
Rankings can change on tiny percentage point margins, Wailes says, pushing a business school multiple places up or down. These short-term movements “create titillation in the industry” but long-term trends and quality are far more important.
The AGSM is advised by a board with senior executive members from a range of different organisations. “They’re always pushing us to ensure that what we’re doing is not just rigorous, but it’s relevant,” Wailes says, “that it’s actually something that business cares about or it’s an insight they can action.”