What got me hopping mad on Saturday

“Why Cambridge?” asked a prospective candidate at the QS MBA fair in London. I was so mad that, without thinking, I snapped back, “Tell me why I should answer that question.” My more diplomatic colleague, probably seeing that this could get ugly, quickly interjected by asking the candidate, “Why you?”.

It was not my best 5 minutes and while I should have responded in a more tactful manner, I won’t make any apologies for my response. Increasingly, I see more and more of such candidates at fairs. These are people who regard their relationship with an MBA as a transactional one, where they are the customers and schools are suppliers that they can choose from. Maybe it is the format of such fairs, where candidates walk from one school’s stand to another, that reinforces such perceptions.

I am not saying that schools do not have a responsibility to provide students with the necessary tools to achieve their goals. The fees that many MBA programs charge will naturally lead to a closer scrutiny of the returns from an MBA. But I feel that the relationship between a school and its students goes beyond a simple buyer-seller transactional model.

At its core, a school is an educational institution with a commitment to nurturing and developing their students. It is not a degree mill or placement service, where students obtain a degree and get placed in a top job in return for paying tuition fees.

As an educational institution, there will be times when faculty or staff have to tell students that they are behaving inappropriately, or that their ideas about certain topics is just plain wrong. And unlike a buyer-seller transaction, students have to accept such criticism if they are going to get the best out of their considerable investment. This acceptance that they are not all-knowing is sometimes the most difficult adjustment for MBAs, largely because good MBA candidates usually have near spotless academic and work records. Yet, it is one of the most important lessons that they will learn during their MBA.

I feel that a student in an MBA is joining a network of partnerships. At one level, this means that students have to work with faculty and staff to make their experience a fufilling one. At a basic level for students, it would mean turning up to class/career events on time, submitting high-quality assignments on time, dressing appropriately etc. For faculty/staff, it would mean preparing material for lectures, making sure we get a good roster of speakers, and getting a strong group of companies interested to work with the school whether through recruiting our students or in offering projects for our students.

At a deeper level, it also means that everyone in the business school has a responsibility to leave some form of legacy that would help the entire community grow. For faculty, it could be new research. For students, it could be sharing new concepts or introducing companies that our Careers staff could work with. At Cambridge, I have been fortunate to see some exceptional students launch voluntary projects that have benefits beyond the Cambridge network.

At Cambridge, we are part of an 800-year tradition of excellence and we have to make sure that each and every one of our graduates can hold their own amongst our distinguished alums. This means that we have to be extra vigilant about the quality of the academic and work experience of our candidates. But it also means that we have to look extra hard for people who can contribute to the Cambridge network. We don’t want people who will only take from the Cambridge MBA. Instead we want people who can also contribute to the Cambridge network and make it a joy for faculty and staff to teach and to work with.

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8 Responses to What got me hopping mad on Saturday

  1. Hi Conrad

    Being a candidate for the MBA program at Judge myself, I have been following your blog for quite a while. To be honest this particular topic made my eye brows raise.

    At work, I have been part of the client/service provider relations myself for quite some time and some experience as a provider. I would not agree with you that the MBA studies (or any studies to that matter) are _not completely the service_ provided by the provider.

    Sure there are many other obligations put on students, as you mentioned – the proper clothes, the students-sharing-experience and the responsibility for ultimate fulfilling the aspirations. However, any standard contract would presuppose similar obligations on the client, be it your cell phone contract, your car insurance or anything really.

    I would not say that I see your (or your colleague’s) counter question is completely appropriate. In the end, the money is paid and the service is provided, or is it not? So why can I not choose among the similar or not so similar providers? And therefore, “why Cambridge?”.

    The program and the student play different roles: the payer and the payee, the granter and the grantee, the listener and the teacher, the partner and the partner. As you mentioned, a student even may be a knowledge sharer (i.e. educator) in some sense. However there is also the service provider and the client roles, since there is a price tag called “tuition fee” and believe me, it’s quite a hurdle. And the obligations of all of these roles (including the client/service provider) should be fulfilled in full by both parties.

    In the end, we are going to be signing the contract papers if and when admitted, or are we not?

  2. Andrey
    Thanks for the comment. It’s given me good feedback in terms of how I should convey the ideas above.
    I agree that there are obligations on both sides and the high fees that we and others charge make the obligations on the business school side much more stark. But what I was trying to convey is that in many discussions that I have had with prospective candidates, many candidates have not thought about their obligations in terms of their contributions to the MBA. Contributions are simply not just about the tuition fee, but also what can they bring to the class that would enrich the experience for everyone else.
    It was not my intention to convey the idea that faculty or staff should be exempt from student scrutiny in terms of the level of service or the education that we give. Far from it. I have been in this role for almost two years now, and have been amazed at the lengths that staff at Cambridge go to make the experience of our Cambridge MBAs a fufilling one for each of our students. I have seen our Careers staff work through the night to counsel our students, or give feedback on their case preparation, interview practice etc. It struck me that actually, many of our staff perform beyond the call of duty and the monetary value of their salary, because they are genuinely passionate about their work and want to contribute to the Cambridge MBA. As a result of the efforts of our staff and faculty, many of our graduates say that the value they derived from their one year here far outweighs the tuition fees and the opportunity cost of the MBA. In fact, I think that because they feel so strongly about the business school and the MBA, they give far more of themselves than someone who is just performing a cost-benefit analysis between the effort spent on the job against the money they are earning.
    I am sure that’s the case with your client service work. The best work that you have done is when you have exceeded what your clients expect based on a simple cost-benefit analysis. What I am saying is that students too have to think about what they can contribute to the MBA, and not just frame things in terms of what they will get out of the program.
    I hope that clarifies things. Love to hear more comments on this.
    Conrad Chua

    • Conrad

      From your reply as well as other replies here, it’s more or less clear that we come to that questions from different perspectives. Prospect students are selecting the schools, and the schools are selecting students and that’s precisely the frame of mind which we are in when we talk to each other.

      Although I appreciate your position as well as all the extra effort of your colleagues, I still see the university-student relations as a contract-based well-paid service. I’m not implying that we, students are not contracted with obligations, but it’s rather our demand that the programs respond to, rather than the other way around (i.e. students are the driving force for the the very existence of the university, not the other way around).
      Although I might be being arrogant here again! 🙂

      Anyway, we should be closer to each other point of view. However, since the university has so much more experience dealing with the students, and we, students will only be getting our second education, I believe you should be one step closer to our view, especially at such events as MBA fairs.

      All in all, I appreciate your opinion and willingness to communicate with the audience on this matter and others.


  3. Conrad, with all my due respect to you and Cambridge I think this is the case of a – surely well-deserved – arrogance.
    You expect all the candidates be aware of your program and the benefits it provides and I’m sure those who’ve done their research won’t ask this question. But the fairs are open for all sorts of candidates, including the ones who have just started their MBA search. Being there a couple of months ago, I can see why a question “Why your school?” has been asked. After all, it is not just the competition between the candidates any longer, it is also the competition between the schools and as a candidate I want to pick up the best one – not just from the top of the rankings, but the best one FOR ME. But I guess this is the attitude difference between the academics and admissions people.

    With the attitude like this I’m not surprised more candidates look at the alternatives like Cass or Cranfield 🙂

  4. Rita

    It was not my intention to be arrogant. I think you made a good point in terms of the dynamics of these MBA Fairs. Having attended almost 20 fairs in the last 18 months, I always find myself wishing there was more time to spend with those candidates who had taken the time to do some preliminary research about the school, or had a clear idea about the type of programme that are, in your words, “right for them”.

    At the same time, my colleagues and I are very conscious of the competition for good candidates, which is why we are always trying to exceed our students’ expectations in every aspect.

    Perhaps the best approach that a prospective candidate can adopt when attending such MBA fairs is to explain his or her individual profile, what they hope to achieve, what they can contribute and then ask whether Cambridge is right for them.

    • I agree with Conrad on this point. Using this approach allows general information to be obtained by the candidate, but with the added value of tailored focus on why that information is relevant to the individual’s personal profile.

      I think that at Cambridge we are very keen to assist candidates in finding the right ‘fit’ for them, and we are pretty candid and open about the advantages of the School but also any limitations too.

  5. Well I have been thinking for a while on the purpose of this MBA fairs. I have attended some of them on the last couple of years and to be honest I don’t think it were worth at all. Actually, I am based on my own experiences, living in a country (Brazil) that it is not usual to have a face-to-face contact with some schools. So, my perspective may not represent the majority of the people’s opinion around here.

    Anyway, it is very normal to get a “Why Cambridge?” kind of question down here since you will have a mix of MBA prospectives just starting to research about schools, but you will also have those who already made their research. So, admission office should definitely approach each prospective accordingly. But the best thing about MBA fairs is that it is a great way to arrange one-one meetings outside the event, this if you already know what are you looking for.

    Also, in my view those who decided to apply for a MBA, especially from a country like Brazil, is surely trying to leverage its career, but most important he or she is looking for an opportunity to learn in a totally different environment and culture. This sometimes represents leaving behind a comfortable situation, family and even a good job to face an unknown situation in a completely different culture. So, being rational, it does not makes sense to attend a MBA, unless you consider intangible gains in this equation such as international exposure and cross-culture experience, both of them a two ways channel between students and school. Even though, it is important to remember that our choices are not entirely rational since each one has it own preferences.

    Just trying to add another perspective around here.

  6. Conrad,

    Honestly speaking, the more I read your stuff, the more I loose respect for your school. You have all reasons to be very proud of your schools and it’s history but not necessarily I should share the same.

    When you have the right to ask why you, I have equal right to ask why Cambridge? As you have too many students to pick up, I too have too many schools to select. Similar to you, I too have many things at stake. It comes down to simple graciousness how we reject each other.

    Anyway, I do not believe those MBA fairs where people are supposed to utter politically correct diplomatic answers. There are many other ways to findout insights of schools, specially in todays internet world.

    My personal advise is, your intention of online sharing is good but probably your arrogance and upper hand approach is sending wrong signals among the prospective students, like me.

    I myself is an applicant of 2013 batch and honestly, I discount your views and I believe Cambridge is much better place!! your views are your personal views!!