Future scenarios of business schools and management education

Guest article by Dr Alex Wilson, Professor Howard Thomas, and Dr Michelle Lee

Since the 1950s, business schools and management education have become a major part of university systems. The rapid growth of business schools in this time has positioned them as one of the engines behind the global expansion of university and higher education. However, over the last decade critics have questioned the precise purpose and value of management education. Critics argue that the fierce pursuit of scientific rigour has compromised relevance to the business community and distanced teaching and research from solving real-world management problems. In addition, environmental and competitive challenges also confront business schools: The decline in government funding of higher education has driven budgetary cutbacks in many schools. These factors, coupled with intense, global competition for both students and qualified faculty members as well as space in academic journals are set to challenge business schools and their leadership.

In recent research, we set-out to investigate possible future scenarios for business schools and management education. To better understand current thinking on future developments, we draw on perspectives from a panel of 39 leading experts drawn from the field of management education (this included presidents, deans, associate deans, or directors at business schools as well as representation from businesses, professional organisations, and the media). Responses were part of a two to three hour, open-ended interview conducted with each member of the panel in which each expert was asked to identify the nature of the best, worst, and most likely future scenarios for management education over the next ten years. Three general scenarios emerged which we have described as “muddling through” (for most likely), “shakeout” or “stagnation” (for worst-case) and an “ideal” scenario (for best-case).

“Ideal” - the best case scenario

The best case scenarios, in essence, represent an “ideal” or aspirational scenario, seeking to inspire and drive innovation in management education. This revolves around two central themes: First, almost three quarters of “ideal scenario” responses  (74%) indicated that business schools will increase the value offered to stakeholders. Secondly, a quarter of responses (26%) indicated that changes to the incumbent structure of the management education field should be made.

For our respondents, increasing the value of business schools to stakeholders means management education producing better managers and increased relevance to solving managerial problems. The first theme, increasing value to stakeholders means attending to four intertwined areas of activity:

  1. Improvements in pedagogy.
  2. (Returning to) the purpose of management education
  3. Moving closer to practice
  4. Ensuring supply of high-quality management faculty

These are very much interrelated and persist throughout the “ideal” scenarios. For example, one respondent explains their ideal scenario as:

“I think a blended partnership between academia and business focused on designing relevant programmes of education and training is important. It would equip managers with the ability to think critically, with a good knowledge of society in general and knowledge of the leading edge of business. I also think that we need to work harder at making our managers much more innovative, entrepreneurial and risk taking.”

Within the second theme, changes would also be seen in the structure of the management education field:

  1. Becoming global
  2. Changing the structure of business schools/universities

Our respondents argue that management education has to evolve into a truly global discipline; they emphasis the rise of players in Asia and Latin America that able to provide diversity and create a range of different models of management education. However, in achieving the ideal state, the relationship between business schools and their parent institutions has to change:

“[Schools] can also use their profits to gain some independence and autonomy. I think that business schools are different from other faculty areas within universities. They have a different, more market-oriented approach in terms of what scholarship and success means to them. For example, there are few other areas where there is such a marketplace emphasis on getting your students into good jobs. Because doing that attracts good students to come to the school which builds reputation and which then attracts good faculty.”

“Shakeout” or “Stagnation” - the worst case scenario

Reflecting on the changes and challenges that business schools face, the worst-case scenario is perceived as one in which there is either a shakeout within management education or stagnation where there is a failure to adapt or change. The worst case scenarios evoked four main themes: A lack of value to stakeholders, no change, the structure of the management education field and competition within the industry.

Over a third (36%) of themes in the worst case scenario relate to the lack of value to stakeholders. This leads ultimately to a situation where stakeholders choose to ignore or substitute the content of management education, and without a credible value proposition, business schools become somewhat redundant in both business and academia:

“The absolute worst, and I don’t know the probability of this, would be that the MBA and or other [business] education models are finally dead. So people come to the conclusion that we really don’t need this anymore, it’s not something that is relevant and not worth what we’re paying for it. And I see cracks in that already. The notion of over-shooting, and I think as an industry we have overshot the value, [is evident in the fact] that the price has gone up so much ...”

No change: 26% of the themes identified indicate that the status quo is inappropriate and a future scenario without change is undesirable:

“The worst case is that we continue to be where we are. That would be awful!”

“If we just keep going the way we are. The worst case is the “head in the sand” case. You know, we’ll just keep going and we see if we can make this work, see if it will come back and see if we stay here long enough.”

Including the – perhaps extreme – argument that schools must “…change or they will die”.

Respondents told us that they see business schools as constrained by the academic structures within their parent university and hampered by resource competition from other schools within the university. At the same time competition is intensifying between university-based and private business schools. For one respondent, the combination of university structure and competition means that continued survival becomes problematic.

“Actually we have a race to the bottom: Business schools, because they provide a convenient source of resourcing to their parent universities and so on, start trying to up their volume and cut their costs and in so doing meet BPP, Apollo and other private providers going the other way. They find they’ve got themselves on a treadmill, which means that they increasingly find it difficult to legitimise their role as genuine academic knowledge providers, as opposed to just low-cost professional development providers.”

“Muddling through” - the most likely scenario

The most likely scenario is perceived to be one of “muddling through”.

Just under half of the themes discussed by respondents indicated that the structure of the management education field would drive some level of change. In the main, structural change was seen as a reaction to intensified competition or attempts to add value for stakeholders. Competition may drive schools to become more specialised, for example:

“I see in the developed world a stronger specialisation. We will have a stronger push for business schools to be more specific on their positioning and their specialisation.  I think the growth of portfolio-type business schools will increase this pressure very heavily. So competition will push things, at least in the most developed countries in which our selling market is more mature … towards a kind of specialisation.”

However, for some respondents, the most likely scenario would be business as usual:

“My mean scenario is business as usual with some frills. I think that my mean scenario also implies one or two, but not very many, institutions getting reconfigured significantly in their business and management schools so that they no longer are just business and management; they may be on to something else or merged with an equivalent group in engineering.  But I think that that is at the margin. In general, it is a combination of business as usual and muddling through.”

Reflections on future scenarios

The worst-case scenario is described as one where there is a lack of change, which suggests that our respondents see addressing current criticisms and challenges as vitally important to the future of management education. It is therefore a matter of concern that the most likely scenario reflects only modest tweaks within the growing tide of global mimicry as business schools strive for legitimacy in rankings, accreditation and their university context. In order to move towards the ideal scenario there is a clear need for the field to secure its future by going back to the fundamental purpose of management education – that is, to produce effective business leaders and to conduct research that has impact on the practice of management.


Dr Alex Wilson, School of Business and Economics, Loughborough University
Professor Howard Thomas, Lee Kong Chian School of Business, Singapore Management University
Dr Michelle Lee, Lee Kong Chian School of Business, Singapore Management University

This draws on the authors’ 2014 article ‘Future Scenarios in Management Education’ in Journal of Management Development 33 (5), 503-519.