By Jon Foster-Pedley, dean of Henley Business School Africa

Why is business education so important for South Africa and Africa today?

It is not just business education of course – it is education and learning in general, at school, university, government, work, in the family and in society. But a good business creates all the services, goods, products and experiences that create a good life for us and allows us to live well and move out of poverty.

Business education is far more than focusing on the institutions of business.  It is about doing good work, solving big problems, being accountable, honest, thinking intelligently and working together well, keeping us safe, warm,  fed,  healthy,  avoiding damaging conflict and having a quality of life that we would like our children to grow into.

If we develop a generation of people who are skilled, able to take their place in international companies and contribute to them, who are technologically enabled  and whose minds are educated towards the extraordinary potential that they often have, then we will build the organisations, new ventures, better service provision that will build South Africa  – and Africa and beyond.

It is for this reason that business education is so important in South Africa.  It is the bedrock, catalyst and most powerful energiser of our future quality of life.  And the organisations and institutions that should provide this inspired education are business schools. Perhaps not the business schools of today but the fast moving, evolving creative business schools of tomorrow.

Where are the big gaps in business education in SA?

I would argue that the biggest gap in business education is in creating education that produces capable, disciplined, delivery-focused managers who truly understand the craft of management and their obligation to get things done and to deliver.

Producing thousands of these types of people will transform South Africa, and will immediately minimise the opportunities for, and tolerance for, corruption, malpractice and waste of our scarce financial and natural resources.  Producing managers cannot only be done in the classroom, if at all.

Management is a skill, and like any skill, needs to be repeated, developed, honed and perfected in the heat of practice and repetition, supported by good review and coaching. This means transformation in the methods and approaches of what we call education today.   We need inventive, practical, highly-demanding, action and results-orientated learning experiences which also give us empathy, insight and confidence. 

What/where is the potential for business in SA/Africa? Do current economic/political trends (incl globalisation vs nationalism) concern you?

What we are discovering more and more is that we cannot leave people behind, whether in business, government or family life, without facing – sooner or later – devastating consequences. If I’ve learned one thing in half a life spent in the business school environment, is that on balance, optimism is justified.

I have seen many examples, improbable stories, of people lifting themselves against gut-churning odds to become educated, activist, positive, effective leaders and examples, not to understand that the human instinct is to grow and improve, more than it is to destroy and take.

Consistent attention to education by individuals, corporations, government and society will tap into raw intelligence, creativity and drive people in Africa to build better and healthier businesses and so transform our societies.

How do business schools contribute to the economy? Are programmes geared towards our environment?

Simply put, proper business schools build the economy and poor business schools destroy it. Programmes geared toward sustainability and the environment are still largely fringe add-ons and feel-good initiatives. In reality, issues around the environment, climate change and sustainability need now to be central to our learning if we are to have a horizon that is more than the shortest of short-term.

On the one hand, we are seeing a resurgence of short-term nationalism and profiteering at the expense of long-term consequences. On the other hand we are seeing an increasingly articulate movement, armed with increasingly powerful facts and research that is determined to create a world that our children can live well in.

Obviously this is going to be a generation-defining battle and anyone who thinks it is going to be polite or easy is living in some kind of fantasy.   At Henley, we’re determined to be leaders in this field and to be convincing in spelling out the consequences of thoughtless business as we become the drivers of building business activities that we can be proud to take part in.

You said that even international business schools are mindful of rights to a quality education, especially in Africa. How are they/Henley contributing?

One of the most important initiatives at Henley in Africa is our MBAid programme. Many of the learners and executives on our programmes are required to do action learning projects on small and medium enterprises, NGOs and other social initiatives. We have helped schools, nearly 300 NGOs, provided scholarships and bursaries on many of our programmes at an increasing rate. We require that all our employees engage in challenging training every year and provide leadership and development posts within our organisation.

This means that within six years we have transformed from 70% white staff to 70% black staff,  to 77% women employees, changed the demographic on the MBA from 30% black to 65% black,  and from 20% women to 42%. I feel that our greatest contribution is to inspire, even insist, that people engage in challenging education, getting over their lack of confidence and fears. Through this students can discover through hard work and success their true capabilities and thus contribute towards developing their businesses and a better society.

You mention that diversity is one of our greatest assets but many say that business schools are too expensive and elitist. What is your opinion on this?

In the past, the MBA positioned itself as an elitist qualification offered to a narrow few of particularly privileged and talented individuals who will become the crème de la crème of the business world and occupy top managerial positions. While acknowledging the need to develop exceptional talent, in general I disagree with this positioning.

My view is that if an MBA is useful in order to develop better businesses and organisations, then why shouldn’t everybody do one and have access to one? It’s true that an MBAs is costly. But in most cases an MBA is less than a price of a second-hand BMW or  Mercedes and they won’t depreciate but will keep giving back the rest of your career.

At the same time many people can’t afford this, in spite of the increasing number of scholarships we give.   Business schools have an imperative to provide effective management and business education to large numbers of people at lower cost. The problem at the moment is that many of the low-cost options are ineffective, which is why we position ourselves as a design agency for learning and in due course we hope to produce highly-effective and low-cost education options.

Are business schools associated with traditional universities deemed far superior? As a private institution, does Henley have to work harder to market itself as prestigious in this environment?

Private business schools often have to work harder to prove themselves than do some of the best public universities, which have a long history. Henley though, is in a fortunate position as part of an international pubic university that is recognised as one of the top 1% research universities in the world.

Henley is registered as a private higher education institution in South Africa. As part of Henley Business School globally it is one of the top 1% of the schools in the world with an international network that has been rated by the Economist magazine as the best in the world. Since we are also internationally triple accredited we also come with the strongest of international credibility, public university depth and private business school creativity and innovation. Our students and clients recognise this.

What does Henley offer that is unique?

We care. We have heart and we deeply respect the people who come to the Henley in order to learn and improve their lives. We know that these are the people on whom our future depends and we do everything we can to support and help them succeed. At the same time under no circumstances will we lower standards.   Everybody who passes a Henley programme knows that they have met a top international standard and have done so often along with European and Asian counterparts.

In blind assessed international marking, our African students do as well if not better than our British Scandinavian, German and Asian students. We also offer a flexible, family friendly MBA with sessions for families on positive parenting, resilience, communication, planning etc. We have worked hard to try to integrate the lives of students and their families into the learning flow that facilitates communication between the student and their spouse and with their children.