The other story in the new FT MBA rankings

It’s the last Monday in January, so it must be the FT MBA rankings.  I may sound as though I don’t get out much, but I always look forward to the rankings being published.  It’s not so much to see who is top of the pile, but to see how business schools are trying to sell themselves to potential students.

In last year’s 74 page rankings publication, it was the lack of advertising that featured women students and graduates that stood out.  It’s slightly better this year, but only slightly.  With so much debate around the number of women in board leadership positions, it’s surprising that business schools have so little to say on this subject in their public advertising.

However, what has struck me about this year’s supplement is the lack of advertising.  This could be down to several reasons, but perhaps two are most important. 

One of the lead stories accompanying this year’s rankings is the two-tier market developing in business schools.  Fewer adverts could reflect ‘second tier’ schools deciding they simply can’t afford an FT advert from their small marketing budget.

It might also reflect the wider societal shift away from print advertising to digital media.  Our own research in 2014 showed that 36% of prospective business school students looked at business school websites on their smartphones; up from just 4% in 2010.

I looked back over the supplements for the last six years (excluding the 2012 publication which I couldn’t quickly find in my office) and the trend is clear.

In 2010, 40 business school advertisers took 24.25 pages of advertising.  In 2011, the number of pages of school adverts was the same, but the number of advertisers was down to 36.  By 2013, there were only 22 pages of advertising from 34 school advertisers. In 2014 pages were down to 21.25 and advertisers to 29.  This year, the supplement only has 16.25 pages of advertising from 19 business schools, less than half the number of five years ago.

Of course, it may be that the MBA sector as a whole is not as strong as it was five years ago.  The 2010 publication came only a few months after the Lehman Brothers crash.  In previous recessions, numbers heading to business school had tended to increase.  In the years of the global financial crisis, full-time MBA programmes have performed less well with numbers declining in many cases.

The supplement remains a great read, but for me it not only tells us which are the top ranked schools globally, but also how schools are changing approaches to their marketing.