Why business schools in Southeast Asia are ‘second class’


Business education has increased exponentially all around the world over the last two decades. The Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) is one of the university’s newest innovations, as is the MBA, and DBA. This has led to the growth of business schools around the world, with this phenomena also very quickly catching on within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) region.

Many prospective students see that the key to a ‘golden career’ is through a business degree. Universities see this demand as a ‘cash-cow’. Business schools attract some of the highest enrollments within any university today.

In terms of infrastructure, all that is needed for operations is a building, library (which can be virtual today), audio-visual and multimedia equipment, classrooms, and teachers. The costs of establishing a business school, and the relevant operational overheads, are the lowest of any faculty within the university.

From the local business school perspective here within the ASEAN region, developing a business curriculum is also relatively simple. Usually this task is left to inexperienced junior staff who have studied business subjects overseas to establish a course outline and curriculum. In many cases the curriculum of other well known business schools are used as models, where the major parts of each course may just be simply uploaded and pasted onto the new course templates, without too much thought or insight into what knowledge and business theories are most relevant for local business conditions.

The naive assumption that rules through inexperience is that ‘if university X teaches this, then it must be correct’. However if university X happens to be in Boston, New York, Melbourne, or London, the surrounding socio-economic environment will be very different, and course content not match the local business environments leading to irrelevant course material.

In many cases, a foreign textbook may be used as a complete course template, without too much consideration for relevance. Content delivery tends to be presented in the archaic lecture format, most often utilizing the stock PowerPoint slides provided by the authors of the textbook.

To some extent, students here within the ASEAN region are receiving business knowledge more relevant to a ‘post industrial’ environment, where today here in the region, manufacturing, and even agriculture are still very much important components of the ASEAN economies, except Singapore.

Unfortunately, what is taught within ASEAN business schools is not directly relevant to the region and therefore of little practical use within local business environments, even if the textbooks used are locally targeted or produced. Special ‘Southeast Asian editions’ are written by academics from outside the region who add a few local cases within the body of the text. Locally produced textbooks to date, have tended to be compilations of foreign textbooks. A lot of material in business courses is just not relevant to the Thai, Malaysian, or Indonesian experience, for example.

Business schools have generally failed to reflect that the ‘ways of doing business’ in their respective countries are different to the ‘west’. Localized knowledge needs to be built into the curriculum. In areas such as ethical business, and creativity and innovation, there is a wealth of local material where local frames can be developed and utilized.

It is sad that in a region so rich with cultural based knowledge and history that has been such an influence on modern management thought and psychology more effort has not been applied to developing local business theories and knowledge.

The top management of business schools should be ultimately responsible for this. However, one will find in many business schools that the faculty resembles a feudal citadel, where favor rather than talent rules. Management tends to be nepotistic, where loyalty over ability is valued. This factor heavily influences the selection of deputy deans and course leaders throughout schools.

As a consequence, young and up and coming lecturers feel obliged to please. They need to carry out research to gain academic promotion, but will work on the ‘pet’ projects of a dean, and put their superior’s name on their own research in return for favorable consideration.

The life of a dean is like being on a gravy-train, where they undertake excessive travel around the world attending conferences, meetings, competitions, exhibitions, and visit other universities, with little or any tangible return to their respective schools.

This travel is often done at the expense of program and staff development.

There is also a careless attitude of business school leaders who have little real commitment about building their schools into institutions. For example, fiscal responsibility in Malaysian public universities is generally very poor, where much spending is undertaken on grand events that are syok sendiri (self indulgent), and have very little benefits to their cohort’s education. On the academic teaching side, one dean of a very well known business school within the ASEAN region once told the author ….”that anybody who can read a textbook, can teach”.

When we compare the leadership of ‘Western’ and ‘ASEAN’ business schools, we see a great difference in the power-distance relationship of the dean with his or her staff. Deans within the ASEAN region tend to be a much more authoritarian figure, in comparison to the ‘chairman like’ style taken by the deans in ‘Western’ schools.

Promotion is a tool of control rather than of creating meritocracy within ASEAN business schools. ‘Professorships’ are regularly given to those who fit in with the establishment, even though they may not have published widely. Connections rather than academic achievement are the norm, particularly within the Malaysia scene. This has a lot of morale consequences.

To many, becoming a professor, is an end in itself, rather than a means of self-empowerment to learn and disseminate more. There are many professors who become deadwood within faculties, through their conservatism and even arrogance. At the other extreme, some business schools in the region don’t even have a single professor on staff.

All this builds a nepotistic and insular culture of mediocrity.

Local public varsities in Malaysia espouse an ambition to become world class. However due to internal institutional biases, local Malaysian Chinese are not recruited, therefore denying the nation of a vast talent pool of potential academics. These rejected academics end up working as high achievers in private universities within Malaysia, or overseas in the UK, US, and Australia. Although Malaysian universities attract a lot of very competent academics from Bangladesh, India, Syria, and Iraq, etc., most of the high caliber local Malay staff who are able, prefer positions in Singapore, Hong Kong, or even Saudi Arabia, where the pay is much better.

If we take a look at the state of creativity and innovation within business schools, what we find is that business schools are the least innovative of any faculty within a university. Agro and engineering based faculties within the ASEAN region usually have programs that outreach to the community. This is especially the case in Thailand where there are many success stories of the creation and application of appropriate technology that is handed over to the community for their benefit. However in contrast, business schools generally have little social interaction with the community.

Too often, business schools insist on staff who have PhDs rather than experience. Thus, business schools are losing out on getting industry experienced academics on staff. Most academics have been through the traditional business school hierarchy, of getting a degree, masters, teaching, and then doing a PhD. Consequently, their experience of the outside business world is very limited.

Quality agencies like the Malaysian Quality Agency (MQA) which certifies university courses is focused on paperwork trails and document compliance rather than the content and delivery of curriculum. The MQA is process rather than outcome orientated, and thus it is questionable about the quality they are actually certifying. Teaching pedagogies are rapidly changing in the business field, and local schools have much to gain in this area.

This brings us to the issue of entrepreneurship itself. Business schools have to decide whether they want to teach entrepreneurship, or teach about entrepreneurship. This comes down to the very question about what do business schools want to produce; entrepreneurs and the future leaders of commerce, or fodder who know a little about business and entrepreneurship?

Local research tends to reflect the latter. Much of the research undertaken by business school researchers is duplicative of what has already been done in other places, where only the context is different. Consequently the same research questions are asked over and over again, thus making very little contribution to enhancing local intellectual knowledge.

It could be argued that business schools have a role to play in a nation’s development, particularly in developing countries within the ASEAN region. Participatory Action Research (PAR) may be a better approach to raising business school standards, creating reputations, and building local business school profiles, than continuing along the path of doing ‘me too’ research.

On research methodologies, traditional quantitative mathematical based methods are almost mandatory, with little room allowed for those who would like to experiment with qualitative methods of finding new understandings through say ethnography and narrative methodologies, for example.

Although business schools are concerned about university rankings, most seem to have made a conscious decision to go after the numbers, rather than quality. This is not just an ASEAN business school problem, universities in the ‘developed’ world have also fallen into this trap in the quest to recruit large numbers of foreign students into their business schools, with great consequences for teaching standards.

The product of these business schools is questionable. Business school education is creating more clerks and executives to fill offices of Asia’s cities. Those who get work follow obediently rather than show leadership.

There are many thousands of disappointed business school graduates who were sold a dream, paid premium fees, and are now unemployed.

As many business schools in the ASEAN region are bogged down in this quagmire, new opportunities are coming across the horizon. With the commencement and development of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) over the next few years, ‘ground level’ opportunities exist for those business schools which can encapsulate local ‘working knowledge’ from their local environments, and create localized curriculum. If local business schools can project their competence in understanding how local business practices work out to the world, there is great potential for them to rise to the next level.

The potential student market for local business schools will expand exponentially within the next few years within the AEC, as there will be a great demand by people who want to learn about ‘how to do business’ locally, from all around the world. Thus a business school in Thailand or Malaysia can potentially pick up students for short courses in educational-tourism formats from all over the world. Many students and executives based in other ASEAN countries, Asia, the US, Europe, and Australia want to learn about the business environments of the various ASEAN countries first hand.

This will be a massive market in the near future.

Thus local knowledge and identity will become a source of unique value for ASEAN business schools to develop and cash in on.

ASEAN business schools have the opportunity in front of them to be the facilitators of the AEC for both corporate business and entrepreneurship development.

If local business schools don’t seize this opportunity, be sure the foreign business schools certainly will.

However ASEAN business schools need to get their act together.

First, local academics must develop the confidence to go beyond the textbooks and move towards more locally based materials for teaching. There is nothing wrong with inexperienced staff as long as they have the curiosity and openness necessary to learning. This is what makes a great academic. Deans and authorities must create positive environments for their young academics by eliminating nepotism within their faculties.

If creativity is going to be generated within local business schools, then deans who are not suppressive of ideas must be appointed. New modes of assignment using multimedia are needed to help lift both staff and students out of ‘cut and paste’ plagiarism. Only then can students within the ASEAN region learn to be creative.

Second, traditional offerings like the MBA must be re-evaluated, and supplemented with a multitude of short entrepreneurship and executive courses that are relevant to the needs of business and entrepreneurship within the ASEAN region today. Very few entrepreneurs have the patience to do a 3 to 4 year course, and very few executives have the time to do a part time master or doctorial degree. This is where local business schools can flourish, from opening new modes of teaching which will generate new sources of income.

The ASEAN region will undergo another large surge in demand for business education within the next few years. Local business schools must develop their own self confidence, become experts of their own business environments, develop local theories of action, and get their product offerings right to become first class and world respected teaching and research institutions.

This article first appeared on Asian Correspondent

Image via Shutterstock

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