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(Getty Images/Paul Fleet)
(Getty Images/Paul Fleet)

Business Education Report, Fall 2011

Winners and losers in the MBA rankings game Add to ...

The full-time MBA ranking published last month by The Economist brings the 2011 season of media rankings of business schools to a close, and the results will be met with the usual mix of joy, despair and skepticism by the business school community. Staff, students and alumni will be assessing the impact of their school's standing in the global market, while potential applicants may over rely on these league tables to determine their shortlist of target schools.

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Those Canadian business schools that took part in the Economist ranking did well, with five of them moving up and just one dropping. The Schulich School of Business at York University climbed one place to 9, and McGill University’s Desautels entered the ranking at 64. This is in part a reflection of the relative strength of the Canadian economy, and the diverse career opportunities enjoyed by graduates.

But several other big-name Canadian schools – Queen's University, University of Toronto Rotman and Western Ontario’s Ivey – are notable by their absence, despite doing well in the international rankings of Business Week and the Financial Times. While the time and staff resources required to complete the requisite MBA surveys have ballooned in recent years, schools often self-select to appear where their school will rank most strongly.

For Peter Todd, dean at Desautels, the school's decision to participate in all the major rankings gives applicants a broader international perspective across an aggregate of results. “For us this is not a game where we are asking ourselves where we will do best. There is some diagnostic value for ourselves, but we also ensure that we don't fixate on what any one particular ranking is asking for. We do what we think is right, and focus on giving the students the best learning experience – the rankings will then take care of themselves.”

So how much should we read into these results from The Economist and the other major rankings produced by the Financial Times, Business Week, Forbes and U.S. News? The Economist admits that comparing “a one-year Danish program with a cohort of 50 students with a two-year American one with 1,000 is tricky. Some would say futile.”

Each ranking uses a different methodology and weights the use of different data to produce their league tables, so it is important for candidates to understand what is being measured.

“There are almost as many rankings of business schools as there are top business schools,” says Murali Chandrashekaran, Associate Dean at UBC-Sauder’s Robert H. Lee Graduate School, “and they are all somewhat different from one another. Some focus on how well alumni do in their career, others focus on specific topics within the MBA program, but the vast majority of rankings are mysteries in terms of what factors comprise them, how they were computed, and the diagnostic value for the schools.”

Critics of the MBA rankings, and there are many of them, point out that they typically only measure what is easy to count – things like post-MBA salaries, GMAT scores and the percentage of international students and faculty. The over-reliance on self-reported data is also called into question, and the absence of any meaningful indicators for teaching quality, personal development, or the impact of the alumni network.

Rankings at least have the merit of providing potential applicants with certain data that would otherwise be unavailable. Given, though, that the methodology of each ranking is subjective in its choice of criteria, and that the difference between a school ranked 25th or 35th is probably not that great, the results should never be the most influential factor when identifying the right school for you. “Factors such as location, costs, alumni networks, faculty research, course length, career progression upon completing the MBA, salaries secured, and so on are useful dimensions to look at,” says Prof. Chandrashekaran.

As Peter Todd explains, there is no 'best' business school in the world, but there may be a 'best' business school for each individual. “Rankings measure a variety of things, and are a useful tool for candidates, but they are only one component of many to ensure the best fit. A school's approach to teaching, the blend of classmates, and a management education that ensures career development and prepares students to do right in the world are all part of the bigger picture.”

But what happens when you take all the rankings collectively? The website MBA50.com, which I edit, has compiled the results of the big five MBA rankings to produce the MBA50 Premiership 2011. Schools are separated schools into four regions (U.S., Europe, Canada and Asia-Pacific) to account for the fact that only the FT and The Economist make direct comparisons. Overall performance is calculated by looking at the ranking position within each region, and taking an average of those results based on the number of rankings in which the schools appear.

MBA50 Premiership 2011 rankings, by region:

Canadian MBA schools

U.S. MBA schools

European MBA schools

Asia Pacific MBA schools

For example, if a Canadian school ranked #45 in the overall FT ranking and #60 in the overall Economist ranking, but among Canadian business schools was #2 in the FT and #3 in The Economist, then this regional figure was used for the calculation.

The idea of the MBA50.com Premiership is to compare the performance of schools in multiple rankings, and therefore does not include the many business schools, particularly those from outside the U.S., that appear in only one ranking. To be included in the MBA50.com Premiership, a U.S. business school must appear in at least four major rankings, and all other schools must appear in at least two major rankings. This means that schools such as Queen's University in Canada, and Imperial College in the UK, outstanding business schools as recognized by their positions in BusinessWeek and the FT (#2 and #37 respectively), have not been included for 2011.

The results show that among the usual suspects that make up the business school elite, Harvard Business School and London Business School, are models of consistency across the rankings. However, among U.S. schools it is striking that there are five different first-placed schools among the five media rankings - underlining the impact of the different methodologies that are used.

Matt Symonds is chief editor of MBA50.com

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