26 June 2019, Johannesburg, South Africa. HENLEY Business School Africa has enrolled its biggest ever MBA class this year – 329 students across five intakes, up from 260 last year.
For dean and director Jon Foster-Pedley, it’s an achievement that needs to be correctly understood to be properly celebrated.
“This is not about us competing with other business schools; in fact, given how some have shrunk and others have sunk in South Africa we should be collaborating with each other to find ways of increasing the pie and then competing with each other to share it. South Africa has a huge need for great business education and we should be collaborating to build that”
There are reasons, though for Henley Business School Africa’s growth, which currently amounts to two thirds of Henley’s global MBA intake and three quarters of the entire flexible executive MBA programme – which is also provided in Finland, Denmark, Germany, Malaysia, Malta and Britain.
“It’s quite an achievement for a single business school in South Africa,” says Foster-Pedley, “but I think it speaks to what we are trying to achieve here.”
A key driver is for Henley to turn away from being a creator and sustainer of hyper business elites, and commit instead to helping forge a new cohort of leaders, a new movement of people, that can actually transform Africa, rather than defending the status quo of inequality.
Numbers are one thing, but why are they coming to Henley? For Foster-Pedley it’s a combination of the nature of the course being offered, the way in which it is offered and the recognition at the end.
“I think our flexible family friendly MBA is a particular draw card at a time when it is really hard for people to take a year off to study. Life is volatile enough as it is and people need to manage their families and their lives – and still study.”
There has been a drop too in the need for the old academic style MBA in favour of a regime where you can apply the new knowledge immediately you get, it ‘earning while you learn’.
“Learning at business school is not just about knowledge, it’s more about capability and skills. You can buy a gym membership and when you get there go straight to the gym library and take out the books and learn all about training. You’ll emerge at the end with a master’s degree in gym theory, but you still won’t have a six pack.
“But equally, if you want a six-pack, you don’t need to read the whole book, you read the relevant section and apply that knowledge – and when you’ve got that you move on build the rest of your body.”
Assimilating the whole library, he says, if you need to, can take the rest of your life, which is a fantastic allegory for continuous education.
“Master of Business Administration is a total misnomer,” Foster-Pedley says, “what we want to do is rename it as a Master in Business Activism or a Master in Business Action. It’s engagement, it’s making things happen and many people are drawn to us because of this purpose that we provide in their lives during and after their academic journey.”
Another reason for Henley’s growing popularity is the business school’s triple international accreditation, coupled to the fact that the examinations are marked externally and blindly by international markers looking at the entire Henley student body.
“People want to know their qualifications hold up, that they’re not being accepted into a place on the basis of a 30% pass in matric, that their three-year degree is actually equivalent to one year of university anywhere else. At Henley, the exams are marked off shore, the standards are immutable. When you get a Henley MBA it’s a standard that no one can argue about,” says Foster-Pedley.
Henley students aren’t supermen or superwomen, he says, but just ordinary people with extraordinary motivation.
“When our MBA students are blind examined; they’re 70% black maybe more, 50% women, maybe more, but our marks are as good as the Brits or the Germans, they are good as anybody’s in the world in fact, which means that what we have here in South Africa is contrary to the ever enduring mythologies of the colonisation of the mind and how not good one is.
“We have very capable people in South Africa and our examination results prove it every time. It’s time we started truly believing in ourselves and know for sure that hard work and persistence will get us to the same level as anyone in the world”
This, more than just a source of personal pride for the dean and director, is also perhaps one of the key drivers behind the record enrolment: “we are very much about engagement, we are very driven to make people believe in themselves as thinkers as actors as doers rather than abstract academics.
“People confuse their value as humans with their grades, perfectionism is a pathology in a learning. We prefer the more zen-like approach of saying you can never reach perfection, but that you should always be perfecting.”
At Henley, the competitive culture is replaced with one of collaboration and it’s not just the people who start to believe in themselves – there’s what Foster-Pedley calls the flywheel effect, with most enrolments as a result of both word of mouth and the trust of companies who nominate their staff to attend, not the business school’s eye-catching and market-leading advertising campaigns.
“Eight years ago, it was Henley who? Now it’s wow, Henley! We’ve built a business school that is absolutely dedicated to producing capable business people, to build the next economy – and people are seeing that. Nothing matters more than all our children’s’ futures. We are very grateful and humbled by it all and just want the chance to continue to build opportunity for all.”