Why business degrees matter

On 4th February, Prince Charles opened a new wing of the Said Business School, currently ranked the 24th best institution in the world to study for an MBA, and 12th in the Financial Times’ ranking of European Business Schools. Dean Peter Tufano described the addition, complete with three lecture theatres, three classrooms and eighteen other work spaces, as a “fabulous asset to the School” – but was it worth its £28m cost when only a small number of MBA and Management students will be able to make use of it?

And generally, is it still worth investing in supporting business-related degrees, considering how much the business world has changed in the past five years? Can a business qualification really help in such a hostile business environment, where even established companies seem unable to weather the storm?

It’s a undisputed fact that business degrees are popular – in 2012, whilst the average ratio of applications to places for an arts subject at Oxford was roughly 5.5 to 1, the ratio for Economics & Management was 12 to 1. Acquiring business knowledge is not just a priority for university students either: nearly 30,000 students took Business Studies at A-Level, which is more than Economics, Politics or Religious Studies. It would seem that, thanks to the country’s intense interest in small businesses and the media’s emphasis on their plight, the labour force of tomorrow is interested in the business world.

Whilst the situation is still worse than in pre-crisis times (according to the accountancy firm BDO, business failure rates are likely to remain above pre-2008 levels until well into 2015), there are just as many stories about successful entrepreneurs as there are about businesses collapsing. For example, Richard Moross, who founded business cards company MOO.com in 2004, suffered a major cashflow failure in 2005, but was able to relaunch in 2006 with photo-sharing website Flickr as a commercial partner. They are proof that it is still possible to be a self-made success – MOO.com now has revenues of £12m a year – and perhaps as a result, people are still interested in learning about entrepreneurship and the way that businesses operate, because the climate is right for them to succeed in the future.

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But what relation does that have to the utility of a degree? It is true that not everyone who takes a business-focussed degree will go on to found their own business, but such degrees don’t just teach you how to found a business: the Business Management course at KCL involves elements of foreign language, accountancy and economics. More theoretical courses, like the E&M course at Bristol, involve significant amounts of non-business elements, such as maths and economics, alongside managerial theory. The degrees are designed to provide an increasingly able cohort of students with the ability to succeed regardless of their eventual career path, and however much the business world has changed in the last five years, skills of organisation, leadership and numerical aptitude are still crucial.

The LSE’s Growth Commission has recently advocated education as a means of improving the status of the British labour force, and companies have recently complained that the key skill lacking from British graduates are transferable skills – and it is business schools which often have some of the highest levels of graduate employment six months after graduation. The 11 UK business schools in the FT’s Top 100 Business Schools in the world had an average employment rate of 91%, proof that the business schools are able to produce successive cohorts of employable and successful graduates.

So, was the Said Business School’s extension worth its £28m cost? Only the future will prove if it is used effectively, but by spending millions on the expansion of its facilities, even if they will only be regularly used by a small cohort of students, the School makes a statement – that regardless of the changes in the business world, it is prepared to support a new wave of students from across the world in their pursuit of success. Prince Charles joked that, had it been around, he would have visited the school when he founded his ‘Duchy Originals’ biscuit business in 1990 (which is now part of Waitrose), but he makes an important point – sustained investment in providing business skills to the next generation will ensure that the country will have entrepreneurs who have the ability to prosper, and keep the UK economy innovative and competitive. However, the government must maintain and expand its support for small businesses – without this support, even the best business school graduate has a much lower chance of founding a successful business. The Said Business School has put its faith in the graduates of the future, and so should the rest of the country.