Stanford, Harvard, Wharton and MIT in the United States; London Business School, Said Oxford, Judge Cambridge and Warwick in the UK; INSEAD in France; IE and IESE in Spain; and IMD in Switzerland all jockey for position at the top of the world rankings along with a handful of others. They are expensive, top-end schools that sprinkle their brands on those clever, confident and rich enough to join them.
Like it or not, the rankings matter, at least to the schools themselves and to the corporations and consultancies that fight over their alumni. Indeed schools who pride themselves on the leadership skills their courses provide feel the pull towards fighting for the throne, the top rank. For one London's Cass Business School frequently writes to alumni with the results of each table. When it took a very slight tumble in one of them two years ago, Cass assured its graduates the matter was being addressed.
It's an inexact science, however, because the tables favour different factors. The Financial Times's Global MBA Rankings bases 40% of its weighting on pre- and post-MBA salaries, Business Week emphasises student satisfaction and The Economist includes new career opportunities.
Recruiters seem to agree that the school can add or detract from the value of an MBA. But they also say that beyond the stardust names, employers will be bothered less with the school an applicant attended than with the knowledge, skills and experience it gave them. Nevertheless knowledge from schools of the likes of the London Business School would stand a chance of boosting a candidates employability.
League tables tell you little about things that could make a big difference, such as the amount of group work, links with employers in sectors that interest you, opportunities for work experience and staff with recent and relevant experience, says Gary Rees, leader of the MBA programme at Portsmouth Business School.
Several international bodies, including the Association of MBAs (AMBA) in the UK, accredit courses, giving a stamp of approval for the teaching and facilities.
Business schools are good at marketing so prospective students should do their best to get beneath the blurb, says Andrew Crisp. And he should know. A co-founder of CarringtonCrisp, the higher education marketing specialists, he advises schools on their branding.
"Students must go beyond the marketing and use social media to track down alumni," he says. "The school should be able to put you in touch with alumni as well and its careers service will be able to give you an idea of the employers that recruit from them," he says.
Swiss success 'A big consideration was the calibre of my classmates'
The search for an international experience persuaded Chris Scroggie to pay £56,000 on an MBA at IMD, the top-ranking business school in Switzerland.
The focus on leadership skills and personal development in the programme and the chance to work with global companies also influenced his decision. As did the 11-month duration of the course, which meant less time out of the workforce.
"It wasn't as much about what I would not get at UK business schools but more about the school that was going to be the best fit for what I wanted out of my MBA," he says.
"A big consideration for me was the calibre of my classmates. My class of 90 students from 45 nationalities had an average age of 31 and average work experience of seven years. We got to work with companies in South Africa, on an international consulting project and to work with a start-up company."
Before starting his MBA Chris spent five years at BDO, the global accountancy network, first as a senior executive for business restructuring and then as a corporate finance executive for its healthcare advisory team.
After graduating in December 2011 he landed a job with Eli Lilly as a pricing manager. "Whilst the MBA required a very considerable investment, both financially and personally, I have no doubt that it was worth it," he says. "Not just in the new opportunity and salary I have now but for the learning and leadership training it gave me and, of course, the many new friends I have all over the world."
Therefore league tables to provide some guidances as to the quality of MBAs in each school, whilst maintaining a healthy competition between them. Choosing your MBA should however be based upon what you would like to get out of your experience within the school, and not necessarily on how well it fights to take the lead in league tables. A prestigious school name like the London Business school will certainly add some credibility to the knowledge and experience that you have cultivated during your studies.
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