By Dan LeClair, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, AACSB International
AACSB-accredited schools award more than two-and-a-half times more bachelor's degrees in business than MBA degrees. Globally, about 20% of all undergraduate students and 23% of internationally mobile students are studying business administration. Although these numbers are impressive, popularity today does not guarantee success tomorrow. Undergraduate business education is facing many challenges, and despite the numerous drivers of change—technological advances, shifting financial models, and globalization—there is one central issue that could exert the greatest impact on the future: the extent to which undergraduate education for business should be more practical.
More and more, traditional "customers" of higher education are demanding specialized degrees that increase their chances of landing a decent (that is, well-paying) first job. At the same time, non-traditional students seek actionable strategies and tactics that can be used in the workplace—tomorrow. And no matter how diverse the demographic may be, students are becoming less tolerant of "academic" courses that are not perceived as relevant to their immediate objectives. The challenge, then, lies in the fact that deans and professors rarely state the purpose of undergraduate business programs directly in these terms. Instead, undergraduate programs are positioned to offer a broad-based education, create responsible citizens, and develop the critical thinking and reasoning skills essential for success. They see an undergraduate education as a way to make graduates more valuable and productive to business and society, rather than an instrument for landing the first job. Broad-based education, rather than practical training, is viewed as essential for career success.
Critics of undergraduate business education are found on both sides of the debate. Some people view it as too "ivory tower" and impractical, especially for undergraduates who enter programs with little prior work experience, and when courses are taught by cadres of academics without business experience. Others claim that business education is already overly vocational, and that undergraduate business education involves very little deep academic engagement compared to other disciplines. The argument is made that business students spend little time in higher learning—the kind that requires reading, reflection, debate, and discussion.
This debate is founded on the false assumption that there must be a tradeoff—that more academic engagement means less practical education. But this should not be the case. The two approaches should be viewed as overlapping and complementary, rather than as substitutes. Ideally, the academic study of business is deeply integrated with practical activities, designed to provide hands-on experience with business projects and organizations.
Considering this debate, and the importance of developing an effective, appropriate, and thorough undergraduate curriculum that satisfies both academic and practical approaches, AACSB International is making a concerted effort to support business school leaders in redesigning their curricula. Starting with in-depth interviews examining 30 undergraduate business programs, AACSB researchers have identified the most useful and important innovations capable of engaging students more deeply in learning, while at the same time providing opportunities to learn through practical experiences.
The interviews yielded a rich set of resources including course syllabi and guidance on curriculum change and implementation processes. They also revealed a number of recurring themes that helped determine the topics featured in the upcoming Redesigning Undergraduate Curricula Symposium: integration of the business disciplines; the development of such interpersonal skills as intercultural communication, leadership development, and teamwork; the development of thinking and reasoning skills such as problem finding and framing, critical thinking, creative and innovative thinking. The symposium will also feature sessions on effective implementation processes and pedagogical innovations, especially in light of time constraints and other obstacles to changes in undergraduate business curricula.
In addition to highlighting the benefits of experiential learning as an important pedagogy, experts from Boston University's School of Management and Michigan State University's Broad College of Business will speak candidly about their own curriculum redesign experiences, along with Villanova Business School (known for developing effective approaches to teaching integration,) and Purdue University's Krannert School of Management, which will discuss effective approaches to leadership development and teamwork.
Not only has AACSB developed resources to support curriculum redesign, it also highlights several important dimensions of undergraduate business curricula in the new Draft Accreditation Standards. The new Standards update the content expectations accordingly (Standard 9) and suggest that educators and administrators think more about student-to-student and student-to-faculty interactions (Standard 10) and "academic and professional engagement" (Standard 13) as catalysts to create a better balance on campus.
In the end, we will gain significantly less by debating whether we have achieved the right balance between academic studies and practical experiences, than by trying to design innovative curricula approaches that provide students with more of both. Indeed, as stated in the guidance for Standard 13, academic and professional engagement is defined as occurring when students are "actively involved with their educational experiences, in academic and professional settings, and when they are able to connect these experiences in meaningful ways."