The financial return on investment is significant, but it’s the resilience and complex problem-solving skills of SA’s MBA graduates that provide the edge globally.
When times are tough, like they are right now, it may seem prudent to reduce spending while waiting for the economic turbulence to blow over. Yet, embarking on a Master of Business Administration (MBA) now - because of the dire situation and uncertainty, not despite it - could be one of the smartest career moves you’ll ever make. The MBA journey teaches a heightened sense of political and economic awareness, on top of the technical and critical thinking skills and personal growth that will take students to the next level. For many, the programme provides valuable support systems and networks, while helping each participant to define what kind of future they want to create - and the courage to get started on it.
The full return on investment (ROI) of an MBA usually takes a few years to unfold. But for the vast majority, it does happen, as studies show. The Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) surveyed business school alumni who graduated between 2010 and 2021 on the value of their degree. Nine out of ten rated their MBA or Master’s as ‘good’, ‘outstanding’, or ‘excellent’ value. Two-thirds reported they had advanced at least one job level after completing the qualification. Meanwhile, the Financial Times
2023 MBA Index revealed that within three years of graduating, salaries of MBAs more than doubled.
"I am perturbed when I hear anyone claiming the MBA is expensive in South Africa," says Prof Morris Mthombeni, Dean at the University of Pretoria’s Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS). For one, he says, many people don’t realise that most local business schools provide two degrees for the price of one: a postgraduate diploma after the first year, which takes students to National Qualifications Framework (NQF) Level 8. And the MBA degree itself after the second year at NQF 9.
Secondly, there is the global context, in which South Africa’s internationally accredited business schools can hold their own among Ivy League schools. This is proven by the fact that all 22 registered members of the SA Business School Association are in the top 500 of the world’s 16 000 business schools. Three of them, including GIBS, are ‘triple crown’ accredited - by the US Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), the UK Association of MBAs (AMBA), and the European Foundation for Management Development Quality Improvement System (Equis). They rank in the top 150, which is the best 1%, of business schools in the world. "Our MBA fees are equivalent to business schools that are ranked 15 000th, far below what those in the top 150 charge," says the GIBS Dean. "So, from a cost-benefit analysis, a South African business school education presents incredible financial value over some of the more developed parts of the world."
Emerging market value
MBA courses in South Africa involve learning at a different cognitive level than their counterparts in Europe, the UK, and US, adds Mthombeni. "Typically, MBA classes in the Global South feature people with five to 10 years of experience, if not more, while in the Global North, students tend to start their MBA at earlier stages of their career, having had only a couple of years’ work experience," he says.
"The value of the MBA in the Global North lies in helping people advance, for example, from supervisory level to first-line management level. In South Africa, the MBA teaches critical thinking, solving complexity and dealing in uncertainty at system level, with the aim to produce managers and leaders able to navigate our daily reality at a general management level."
This is reflected in the qualification level, as he says that according to South Africa’s national qualification framework, the majority of American and European MBAs would be equivalent to an honour’s degree (NQF 8), whereas the South African ones are at master’s level (NQF 9).
Generating value for employers
Leading companies frequently offer MBA sponsorship as career development or to retain high-performing employees who will continue working while they study. At GIBS, where more than 60% of MBAs are employer-sponsored, students are challenged to generate ROI for their employers while still studying. "I always tell my students, “Take what you learn in class and implement it in your organisations immediately,” says Mthombeni. “By the end of the course, you have paid back your tuition fees in hours spent consulting and in creating more sustainable value for your employer.” Many students take up this challenge and achieve ROI by implementing successful consulting initiatives in their organisation.
Another important factor relates to value through personal growth. Graduates often talk about their MBA journey as a life-changing experience that sharpened their reasoning skills and critical thinking processes. Studying and networking with people from diverse backgrounds changes individual perspectives and widens horizons. Nearly everybody mentions increased confidence and self-awareness, which is also something that employers noted in the 2020 AMBA International MBA survey.
Participating employers were asked what differences they noticed in working with people before and after they completed their MBA. "Common themes that emerged included enhanced analytical skills; enhanced strategic skills; greater confidence; growth in communication and presentation skills; better problem solving; a holistic view of business; enhanced critical thinking; greater focus on the task ahead; better decision-making; a global mindset; improved financial acumen (and a tendency to demand a higher salary); and agility and flexibility," says the AMBA report. It concluded that the surveyed employers were "overwhelmingly positive about the value of an MBA from a reputable business school when looking for senior managers".
Locally relevant, globally competitive
MBA students in South Africa are faced with more uncertainty and complexity than those in Europe, the UK and US. Burning societal issues such as the inequality gap, youth unemployment and the aftermath of state capture present challenges of which wealthy nations have little experience. The GIBS MBA aims to equip students with the knowledge and skills needed to address global challenges at a local level. Therefore, the curriculum increasingly integrates a focus on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and other aspects of sustainability.
"We teach experiences, case studies and material that is relevant in our context, in South Africa and Africa," says Mthombeni. "We don’t just copy and paste formulas and apply them blindly. Our students learn in the classroom and outside, when we take them into communities, into businesses and into society."
He explains that every MBA student has to complete a year-long project relating to one SDG, doing practical work with companies and NGOs. In addition, the school champions anti-corruption in society, and has become a convening space for students to interact with whistle-blowers, NGOs, business and government officials that are pushing back on corruption.
Real-life learning opportunities like these teach resilience, long-term thinking and societal impact, which are attributes that business leaders need to responsibly steer South Africa towards a more sustainable future. While the MBA journey is intense, robust and will push and challenge you, those who find a business school with the right fit are likely to reap a disproportionate ROI - for themselves, their organisation and broader society.