BUSINESS and business schools have a symbiotic relationship: the former looks to the latter to provide a steady stream of suitably qualified graduates into their companies year upon year. The connection between schools and companies is close but generally informal—firms suggest areas in which they feel the latest crop of graduates are lacking in knowledge, and schools sometimes take action to improve their tuition in that area. That arms-length relationship, however, might be changing.

“We have these conversations already with employers, but we wanted to formalise it,” explains Joyce Russell, dean at Villanova School of Business. The school is working hand-in-hand with KPMG, one of the big-four accounting firms, to provide a specialised business programme. A taskforce from Villanova is holding meetings with KPMG to thrash out the curriculum that will be taught next year. Though it is early days, Ms Russell is keen to see other organisations become more involved with drawing up tuition.

Such an arrangement, she reasons, benefits all parties: businesses can take on students who are “the finished product”, rather than have to invest time teaching them additional skills that individual firms require; students gain job security, need not pay for tuition themselves and become more employable as a result; and business schools can claim to teach more relevant skills to employers, and to place graduates in jobs more easily than before.

Yet at the heart of this decision is a dilemma that business schools have wrestled with since their inception. On the one hand, they long to be taken seriously as independent, academic institutions. Tell them they are mere vocational training centres and they will smart. On the other hand, they aspire to be relevant to real world businesses. Judging what firms need and adapting the curriculum is one thing; having firms help directly to design a degree programme, some will feel, is a step too far.

The problem, thinks Scott Marcello, KPMG’s vice chair of audit, is that academic bureaucracy slows down the pace at which business schools adapt. For that reason, he says, his firm has had to step in to speed up the process. Business schools’ inability to prepare students well enough for the workplace is particularly acute for employers. “We set out to help solve a problem that’s been out there for a while: a tough market for finding the right talent,” says Mr Marcello.

Yet, there is also the question of whether the degree, tailored as it is to KPMG’s own needs, will be recognised by other employers in the way that the school’s other Master’s programmes are. Many students are not concerned. Hayden Corley, an accounting undergraduate at Southern Methodist University in Texas who will be part of the first KPMG cohort at Villanova, says he chose to apply because he thinks the degree will help him stay one step ahead of the curve in an ever-changing world.

The two schools that have initially signed up to pilot this programme will likely not be the last. A number of other institutions have been in contact with KPMG since learning of the idea, says Mr Marcello, and the company will be investigating those leads once the initial programme is underway. The standalone business Master’s programme is not yet in danger. But perhaps the lines between academia and business have become just a little more blurry.


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