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Panel: Do Business Schools Teach What Their Customers Need?

19th CEEMAN Annual Conference
Georgia - Tbilisi | 2011
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The Plekhanov Russian University of Economics was the first higher school of economics in Russia. This year we are celebrating the 105th anniversary of our existence. It was originally set up as a private school by a group of Russian merchants but at present it is a public school. 

The question that this panel is discussing is whether business schools teach what their customers need. First, let me briefly describe the current situation as I see it. I will give you a national perspective and my colleagues from Russia and Ukraine will correct me if I am wrong. 

Most business schools are now positioning themselves as service organizations. They are no longer the ivory towers that the universities used to be. 

We are even using the jargon that businesses are using. We are service-oriented, client-oriented, market-oriented, strategy-focused, keen on generating income, and involved in cost-benefit analyses. We say that we make our services work for our stakeholders and customers. 

On the other hand, there is a whole list of issues that business schools need to consider: ethical responsibility, ethics, integrity, human capital, knowledge creation. This is becoming increasingly important after the latest financial crisis. 

If we are market-oriented organizations, we should also speak about the experience that we provide to our students. We should not forget that these are some of the best years of their lives. They need some life experiences and excitement during their years at a business school. It is for them that we produce our glossy, juicy brochures and our flashy websites. 

What are our applicants looking for? 

They want a prestigious diploma and a recognizable brand as well as a successful career with an attractive salary. They also expect an affordable price; the business school education should not be overpriced. This is important in a country like Russia since students finance their own studies. 

As for the students that we have already enrolled, they are also keen on a prestigious diploma and a well-known brand. But, as Nana said, they start going to job interviews as soon as they have been admitted to the business school. They also look for contacts, in order to boost their career perspectives. This is even more typical of students on graduate programs. And of course, they want their lives to be cool and interesting and exciting. 

As for government and society at large, they are interested in equal opportunities in access to higher education. The government controls the quality of the education either through national quality standards or through a quality assurance system. The members of society want to be educated and responsible citizens. 

The final consumer of the skills and knowledge that we provide is business. Business expects specific knowledge and skills for specific immediate usage. They want the graduates to be adaptable and accepting change as they change their professional careers several times in their professional lives. They are keen on people who can demonstrate leadership skills and creativity. 

If we had catered only for the interests of the first two groups of stakeholders, Russia for example would not have had any engineers and medical doctors after the turmoil in the beginning of the 1990s when all school leavers wanted to be brokers or bank managers. 

But there are also parents and sponsors and they have their needs and requirements. Once I got a call from the embassy of Azerbaijan. They wanted a report on the progress of an Azeri student who was financed by some national foundation. They did not want just grades. They wanted a psychological portrait, including the student’s attitude toward education. 

We also have faculty and employees at our business schools. Their satisfaction level has a great impact on the quality of our services. There are also international accreditation agencies setting educational standards. Unfortunately, sometimes they do not appreciate the needs of the local market. 

So how do we respond to all these diverse needs and wants? Some Russian business schools focus on the wants and needs of the applicants and their current students. They sometimes offer very exotic combinations of programs under one and the same roof, such as “Legal Issues” and “ Fashion Management”. Some regional business schools that are linked to regional universities cater to the needs of the government. They are funded by the government and have their work assessed by it. 

We have to prioritize the needs of our stakeholders. But which demands do we address? If we address today’s demands, the businesses will be unhappy because they want perspective. They want graduates who are capable of focusing on the future and of taking their organizations there. Sometimes, we design programs that we believe to be important for the near future. However, the applicants would not understand what we are talking about. And what will we do if we do not have applicants? 

Many business schools address yesterday’s demands. Why? Because that is what we know. That is what we have trained our faculty for and what has been approved and funded. 

In Russia, most business school revenues come from the students. Consequently, we have to be very attentive to their needs. If a school gets public funding, if must be responsive to what the government requires. Where is the labor market then? Where is the business? With the exception of customeroriented executive education programs, I do not see much involvement of Russian business in the design of business school curricula. They pay for some short-term skill-developing training for their employees. Sometimes they cover part of the costs of their MBA students. But they are not ready to get involved in program content or revenue generation. 

The big question is who is paying for the social responsibility, ethics, and integrity - all the issues that are very important for both society and business schools. 

There are two popular Russian questions, known from our classic literature: Who is to blame and what shall we do? I will skip the first one and try to answer the second from the perspective of a business school. I believe that business schools should promote their own vision and set of values. They should not follow the immediate needs of their clients. I can refer you to the latest edition of CEEMAN News, which is in our conference pack. It contains an interview with Hermann Simon, author of “Hidden Champions” concept. According to him, one thing that business schools can learn from the hidden champions is to develop their own niche and become a world leader in it. This is how you can create a set of values and promote them to the stakeholders. 

Governments should allow business schools to follow long-term agendas and provide sufficient funds to support them. The businesses should be ready to share the costs of building socially responsible employees of the future and participate in both content development and program delivery. International organizations should support business schools and put pressure on governments and businesses so that they work together. 

There is another important stakeholder: the media. It is essential that they promote socially acceptable and ethical success models. Parents want their children to become lawyers and executives. Very rarely do we see university professors as role models, or engineers, or medical doctors. 

Thinking about the topic of this panel, I would like to ask some questions. Do business schools know their customers? Do the customers know their own needs? Should we communicate the importance of some of the values that we have selected as our top priorities? Finally, do business schools understand what needs should be met first and foremost? 

I would also like to reflect on the importance of theory versus practice. In my master classes there are engineers with a technical education currently holding managerial positions, and managers with previous business or economic education, and there are yesterday’s business students. They have a variety of different needs. As a professor, I believe that they all need a theoretical perspective; that is what brings them all together rather than their practical interests on which they all diverge. I also think that the faculty should respond to students’ questions, not give them ready answers or just tell them what chapters to read. 

The teaching methods are also extremely important. If we teach only by lecturing, the students will not understand much. But there are many ways to actively involve the students, such as simulations and games. These give them both a practical experience and a theoretical background.
19th CEEMAN Annual Conference: Management Education in a Changing World: Are We Ready for the Challenge?
September 2011
Published from:
October 2011
Olga Saginova, Panel: Do Business Schools Teach What Their Customers Need?,
Accessed: June 24 2019,
Available at: http://ceeman.lecturehub.com/lectures/647/2011_ceemanac_tbilisi_saginova_dbstwtcn
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