The FT 2017 rankings

So I am writing this at 6:30am while listening to Coverville podcast episode featuring 90 minutes of Warron Zevon covers. I work best in the quiet morning although I draw a line at joining the 4am club.

I’ve just updated a presentation that I do every year around this time to the current MBA class answering any questions students might have about the Financial Times rankings. Love it or hate it, the FT rankings is keenly watched by many candidates, MBA students and alums.

This year, the Cambridge MBA did spectacularly well and was ranked 5th up from 10th. A lot of that improvement came through the weighted salary, salary increase, value for money components and also our faculty research rank.

This is of course great news and is a reflection of the improvements that I have seen in the Cambridge MBA over the last few years. On the other hand, I know that the school won’t get carried away with these results, because we know that rankings are naturally volatile, as you can see from the number of schools that have double digit changes in their rankings every year. Ultimately, we have a strategy for the school and the MBA that, in many cases, overlaps with what the FT, and other rankings measure, but we won’t be driven solely by rankings, as that would tear the soul out of any school.

This measured, or in the words of our Dean, “sober” attitude towards the rankings was not always so easy to maintain. We went through a patch when the Cambridge MBA was in the lower half of the 20s in the FT and I had to write papers to stakeholders explaining where we did not do so well while reiterating the soundness of our overall strategy.

One of the difficulties I faced when explaining to stakeholders then was that the FT rankings do not measure what you think it measures. Firstly, it is very weighted to what the alums from 3, 4 and 5 years ago are doing, now, last year and the year before respectively. Many of the measures from the alumni survey are actually a blended average comprising 50% from the alums who graduated 3 years ago, and then 25% each from the alums who participated in the survey last year and the year before last. Secondly, the FT uses quite a lot of adjustments when arriving at the weighted salary. It uses PPP to convert currencies, rightly takes out salaries of alums who are working in the not for profit sector or taking further education, then removes the top and bottom salaries, before making some sectoral adjustments (which probably hurts the schools who have a high percentage of alums in high-paying sectors). So the final figure that you see probably does not bear much resemblance to what an “average” alum in that year is earning now.

Of course, a good ranking relieves a lot of pressure on the school when explaining to stakeholders, but I also think it means that we have to do even more to keep our stakeholders focused on what matters. On the MBA itself, we have just changed several components of the programme in response to feedback from employers, alums and top leaders, and the school will have a new extension next year that will give us a lot of well-needed space. And while our alums have expressed a high level of satisfaction through the FT survey, we are also looking at other rankings (we only participate in the Economist and Business Week rankings) that provide us with more qualitative feedback from alums and students, and seeing how that squares with what we have learnt from our own class surveys. We can’t satisfy everyone but that process does help us have reliable data on which we can make better-informed decisions about what to change. Along these lines, I do want to increase the percentage of graduating alums for whom we have employment information about. The FT actually reports this number in brackets under the criterion percentage employed after three months. For last year, we only had information from 88% of the class and I see that all the other schools in the top 20 have a higher reporting figure. It is something we will have to improve on.

I want to end off my repeating a message that I have reiterated every year at this time. It is impossible to reduce an MBA experience in whatever school to just a number. Don’t ignore the rankings but make your own judgement of a school from speaking to its staff, its alums and students and make your own decision whether that is the right school for you.

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