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South African business schools fail test: thousands of business students in South Africa have been rocked by the announcement from the country's education authorities that their MBA certificates may not be worth the paper they are printed on. now, Tom Nevin reports, shrapnel from this decision has been flying in all directions.

At the stroke of a pen, the South African Council on Higher Education (CHE) has negated expensive MBA qualifications earned, or in the process of being learned, at business schools South Africa-wide. It ruled late in May that teaching at 50% of technikons and 75% of private institutions was substandard and they may no longer offer MBA courses.

The long and short of a tertiary education bombshell that has rocked the hallowed halls of business academia education and brought normally well-behaved business students out onto the streets, is that the qualifications of thousands of South African MBA holders might not be worth the certificates they're printed on.

A two-year probe into the quality of MBAs in South Africa by the CHE, a government-appointed body, has resulted in all institutions offering the sought-after business course being made to apply for re-accreditation as a means of weeding out substandard and fly-by-night operations.

In the end, 10 of the 27 institutions offering MBAs failed to qualify, five received full accreditation and 12 were conditionally recognised. MBAs in South Africa cost between R40,000 and R100,000 ($6,000-$15,000). Some of the deregistered institutions have threatened legal action against both the CHE and its higher education qualification committee.

However, all is not lost for those students who won their degrees at some of the institutions disqualified. Such qualifications will be recognised overseas in such countries as the UK and US.

Dr Dick Gerdzen is the founder of Business School Netherlands, one of the schools that had its accreditation reversed, and he maintains that CHE's survey fails to take into account new methods of learning. "We find that although our action-learning approach is different from traditional ways of teaching, companies see results," he says. "Our students are required to be in managerial positions and use action learning to analyse and find solutions to work-related problems. Too much weight has been given to a piece of paper and academic conditions and not enough to how it benefits the individual and companies."


That point of view doesn't hold water with Dr Prem Naidoo, director of accreditation at the CHE, where a 25% research component is required, "and that's not particularly demanding", he maintains. "In any masters' degree the minimum research component is 50%. We cannot rely solely on global knowledge. We need workplace case studies relevant to our particular culture in this country."


The CHE launched the evaluation of all MBAs on offer in South Africa in April 2002. "There has been a flood of MBAs on offer in the last five years and we wanted to know whether these curriculums were focusing on what they should," says Naidoo.

The survey evaluated 13 universities, five technikons and nine private organisations. According to Hugh Africa, chairman of the CHE's higher education qualification committee, the de-accredited institutions "failed to meet the Council's minimum standards", and they would have to phase out their MBA programmes and would only be considered for re-accreditation after two years. In certain cases students would be allowed to complete their courses or be transferred to other, accredited, programmes.

The CHE's research sought input from the directors of business schools and made comparisons with international best practice. Among these were the standards of the European Foundation for Management Development and the International Association of MBAs. According to Africa, it was an attempt to improve quality in South Africa's higher education. The CHE was at pains to explain that concerns had been raised about the proliferation of MBA courses in South Africa and it wanted a better understanding of the quality, costs and benefits of these courses and their relevance to the country's needs.


Students holding qualifications from affected schools are not comforted that they have certificates that "will travel" but are suspect in South Africa. They did not necessarily want to leave the country to make best use of their hard-earned degrees. One such is Nerishni Shunmugam, a BSN graduate, who believes the CHE did not think hard enough about how its survey would affect individuals, and she feels cheated.

"My dissertation alone took 164 hours and I had to complete it while caring for my newly-born daughter. Add to that the R50,000 ($7,500) I paid for my MBA," she says.

Shunmugam says she did not have the time or the resources to study at an institution like Johannesburg's Wits University Business School. "Wits offers a good MBA but it has an international study component during which you are required to be overseas for a certain period," she points out. "The CHE looked at standardisation and quality but not at whether it was practical for black women such as myself to study at an institution like Wits."

Nondwe Nkonzo, spokesman for deaccredited Bond SA, said his institution was "very disappointed that the criteria by which we were judged were inappropriate and did not take full account of or give due regard to the basis of our MBA within the entire university. Being assessed as a private provider against criteria that favoured local state provision was not helpful at all."

The CHE's bombshell is sending shrapnel flying into the human resources departments of South Africa's major corporations. According to one bank, it is "focusing on and ranking the various (MBA) institutions in line with the CHE's report". A leading head-hunting organisation reports that its clients are beginning to question where applicants obtained their MBAs and what type of accreditation the institution received.

RELATED ARTICLE: "Buy one MBA, get one free"

Worrying the watchdogs of South Africa's tertiary education is the plethora of bogus MBAs being offered to students who don't have to open a textbook or attend lectures. Advertisements currently flood the internet and arrive unsolicited by email and, until recently, were run in newspapers and magazines.

The South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA) managed to block many of the ads. "But what we find now," reports Samuel Isaacs, SAQA's chief executive officer, "is that the degrees are being advertised on the internet and via email. This is nothing more than a scam. Everyone should realise that a degree without any work sounds risky, but there are the gullible people who get caught."

According to Naidoo, the survey was the first step in a CHE programme to re-establish the integrity of MBA education in South Africa. A report, due in September, will roadmap long-term plans to upgrade the quality of accredited courses. The CHE then plans to conduct similar reviews of other higher-education sectors soon and next in line will probably be teacher education.

A human resources specialist, Elmarie Liebenberg, says almost 40% of applications she processes contain some degree of fraud. "These range from extra credits being added to degrees, grades being improved and degrees from totally fake institutions," she says. "It's got to the point where even certified copies of documents are worthless."
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Business Education; South African Council on Higher Education
Author:Nevin, Tom
Publication:African Business
Geographic Code:6SOUT
Date:Jul 1, 2004
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