What’s the Future of Business Education in India?

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Monday, May 8, 2023
By Sharon Shinn
Photo by iStock/nullplus
The country’s schools must create interdisciplinary programs that focus on innovation and are dedicated to solving pressing global issues.
  • In a virtual roundtable hosted by AACSB, representatives of Indian business schools considered the future of management education and the role of accrediting bodies.
  • Participants agreed that, to solve today’s business problems, managers must have the multidisciplinary skills they can only gain from exposure to the sciences, the arts, and the humanities.
  • Participants also had suggestions for improving undergraduate programs at Indian business schools.

Where does the university-based business school fit into the landscape of business education in India? Where is it today, and where is it heading?

These vital questions were addressed in a recent invitation-only virtual roundtable organized by AACSB as part of a continuing conversation about critical issues in management education. The discussion was facilitated by Amy Memon, AACSB’s Regional Head in South Asia, and led by Pankaj Chandra, vice chancellor and chairman of the Board of Management of Ahmedabad University.

Additional academics from the region shared their perspectives during the discussion. Participants also debated other pertinent topics, including the state of undergraduate business education in India today. Their comments, presented here, have been edited for brevity and clarity.

The Current Picture

Chandra led off the discussion by providing background on the history of higher education in India. The first phase of its history started in 1857 with the founding of the University of Calcutta and lasted about 100 years as additional universities across the country were established.

The second phase, which ran from the 1950s to 2000, encompassed the rise of national institutions in every discipline, including technology, medicine, and management. The third phase started in 2000 and has seen the creation of private universities that are driven by the liberal arts and have their own distinct models.

Early business schools focused on the three fundamentals of math and statistics, economics, and industrial psychology. “Over time, as we came to understand the functions of a firm, schools added marketing, finance, and operations,” said Chandra. “This is the most exciting part of the story in India.”

But over the past 25 years, he said, society has witnessed the emergence of complex global problems stemming from poverty, war, and climate change. These societal issues have been accompanied by economic volatility caused by events such as the financial crisis of 2008 and the economic aftermath of the pandemic. None of these problems can be solved by a single discipline.

“In my mind, there’s no such thing as a ‘marketing problem.’ Any marketing problem is often just as much a supply chain problem or a manufacturing problem or a clever financing problem,” said Chandra. “Hence, the old format of business schools is not capable of delivering the sustained solutions that society requires.”

Tomorrow’s leaders must think very differently if they are to achieve the “deep innovation” they will need to address global challenges. To help managers develop this capacity, business schools need to move away from teaching “end-of-the-book Mickey Mouse problems to really discussing the problems facing business firms and society in all their goriness and complexity,” Chandra said.

Tomorrow’s leaders must think very differently if they are to achieve the “deep innovation” they will need to address global challenges.

He recently toured large Swedish manufacturing firms in a number of different industries, and every firm he visited was more than 100 years old. “The only question I heard from any of these places was, ‘How do we innovate to make our operations and our products more sustainable?’ The answer to this requires interdisciplinarity. It requires practice orientation. It requires deep research thinking.”

Chandra pointed to Northvolt, a Swedish firm that recycles lithium-ion batteries from around the world. Since its founding less than 10 years ago, Northvolt has raised about 6.5 billion USD and achieved a market cap of 12 billion USD. Said Chandra, “We need to ask ourselves, do our existing business schools have a curriculum that would enable our students to develop a Northvolt in India? Are we training kids in our program to be able to work and innovate in a company like Northvolt? Because that’s really where the future is.”

A Plan for Solving Tomorrow’s Problems

Chandra believes that, for Indian business schools, future opportunities lie along four axes:

  • Data, materials, biology, and behavior.
  • Health, transport, energy, and food.
  • Air, water, land, and forest.
  • The individual and the community.

Not only do many disciplines revolve around these axes, he said, new opportunities lie at their intersections. For instance, he described his time on the board of an IT company that had built software to determine the best way to route planes to European airports. But the software, which approached the challenge as an operations problem, was not successful—because the challenge was also a business problem.

“Most airports make more money through the sale of food and beverages than through landing fees for planes,” Chandra said. Airports would be more profitable if the biggest planes landed near the gates where food outlets were located, but the engineers had failed to take that business reality into account.

To solve today’s problems, he said, managers must have input from science, engineering, the social sciences, and the humanities to understand “what is feasible, what is desirable, and how to integrate it all together.”

Chandra contended that only university-based business schools can build such multidisciplinary environments and curricula. “I don’t think standalone business schools have the understanding or the proximity to do it.” He observed that the world’s best business schools all have symbiotic relationships among learning, teaching, and research functions, which allows them to create programs that are deep, broad, and integrated. “And I believe that’s an opportunity for us.”

An Interdisciplinary Emphasis

Others at the roundtable echoed Chandra’s comments about the need for synergies between business programs and programs within the wider university, and they agreed that it is more difficult for standalone schools to create such synergies.

One participant noted that students at university-based business schools have access to courses delivered by experts in their fields, such as computer classes taught by computer science professors and business law courses taught by law professors. Standalone schools that want to provide their students with similar opportunities would need “to build linkages with institutions that can provide them with content and expertise in complementary areas.”

It can be difficult for standalone business schools to create synergies between business programs and programs within the wider university.

Even universities that promote interdisciplinarity must take steps to ensure their efforts work for their programs, according to another participant. He suggested that universities create faculty development programs to ensure that professors understand the requirements of the other schools where they are teaching.

Universities also need to give some thought to how they put together intercollegiate collaborations. For instance, Memon described the Master of Integrated Innovation for Products and Services at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. The joint program was founded by the schools of business, engineering, and design, who were all partners with equal input into its creation.

According to Chandra, business schools can implement multidisciplinarity in a number of ways. At the lowest level, they might allow their students to take a few courses in subjects such as computer science. At the next level, they might encourage students to develop broader mindsets by enabling them to take as many as 30 percent of their courses outside of the business school. At the highest level—“which is where I think we need to be”—schools will recognize that business is about making decisions. Therefore, they will ensure that students develop the interdisciplinary skills they need to become thoughtful decision-makers.

Chandra provided an example from his own school, which offers a global executive MBA for the pharmaceutical industry. For a class that covers pricing, Chandra will request appearances by professors of marketing, economics, and operations. For a class on transformative innovation in the industry, he will bring in biologists. When he discusses plant efficiency, he’ll invite professors from the fields of operations, productions, and chemical engineering. He added, “All of them are available to me at the university.”

The Challenge of Undergraduate Education

Another topic participants discussed was the state of undergraduate business education in India, where graduates often are considered unemployable unless they go on to earn higher degrees.

Chandra had three suggestions for how business schools can improve undergraduate education. First, they should offer students a broad base of learning in nonbusiness subjects. Second, they should provide students with appropriate industry training through opportunities such as co-ops. Third, they should train undergraduates in general skills such as critical thinking, analytical thinking, communication, and technical competence. Undergraduate programs need to be restructured, he said, and “universities can pull together the resources to make it happen.”

Several participants noted that many universities in India offer undergraduate business degrees simply to generate revenue. Others pointed out that in the U.S. and Europe, many leading business schools do not offer undergraduate education at all—in part because the perception is that younger students might not be prepared to master the intricacies of business.

To improve undergraduate business education in India, schools should offer nonbusiness courses, provide students with industry training, and help students gain soft skills.

“There’s no point in teaching 18-year-olds business subjects if they don’t have the baseline ability to critically approach problem-solving in a structured way,” said one. He did, however, feel that undergraduates benefit from studying economics, which teaches an analytical way of thinking.

Another participant had surveyed recruiters at Big Four accounting firms to discover what they were looking for in new hires. She learned that these companies are seeking students who have the type of critical thinking skills that can only evolve within a diverse curriculum. These employers also want students with a strong ability to communicate—an essential skill in India, where people speak in many regional dialects as well as English. Believing that it is worth the effort to help “young and enthusiastic” BBA students develop such skills, she has been introducing elements of theater, the humanities, and other liberal arts into her business courses.

She also emphasized that undergraduate business programs are here to stay. “We can’t run away from the fact that, in India, education is an emotional issue,” she said. “Parents will sell their land to pay for higher education.”

The Role of Accreditation

Whatever happens next with business education in India, roundtable participants expressed the opinion that accrediting organizations have important roles to play. For instance, said one, if more schools embed business courses in law and business programs, AACSB could have a part in certifying or accrediting such courses.

In addition, Memon noted that accreditation can act as a powerful framework for helping business school leaders articulate and achieve their goals. As an example, she pointed out that the 2020 standards focus on the values of diversity, technological agility, and multidisciplinarity, while they also encourage school leaders to consider how their programs could have an impact on society.

Members of the association also have access to a community of peers who can help them achieve their goals, she added. Through the AACSB Exchange, AACSB Insights, conferences, and other services, the association brings together business school leaders to share ideas and improve their programs—in India and around the world.

AACSB members who are interested in joining future roundtables can register their interest online.
Sharon Shinn
Editor, AACSB Insights
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