Dubai Business Associates combines the best elements of an MBA

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Interviewing recent graduates can be a dispiriting exercise. It all starts well. The candidate is bright and personable, makes a good first impression and boasts excellent academics and extracurricular activities on their CV. However, when the discussion turns to business, candidates can dry up and hiring managers can be left disappointed. 

Straight from college, even the most promising graduates often leave with skills more suited to academia than the world of work. There are times during the annual hiring round when one starts to wonder what college is for, and whether we should be teaching our young people differently.

Of course, there is no substitute for practical experience in a chosen industry, but business owners and hiring managers often despair at the focus of university teaching across the world. Students are taught to work independently and compete, racing to graduate top of the class rather than collaborating in teams. There is a focus on acquiring, applying and displaying knowledge, rather than solving problems. Even in business and management courses, the subject matter is often far more theoretical than practical.

The executive MBA has long been academia’s answer to this problem. Universities from the U.S. to China and the Middle East compete to train the business leaders of tomorrow with highly practical and results-oriented courses. MBA graduates often reflect that the real value of the course is in the network it gives you, having worked together with like-minded business people.

MBA courses, however, with their hefty price tags and highly competitive admissions criteria, are so highly prized that they have always been targeted at professionals with established careers, looking to take the next step into senior management or consultancy positions.

Responding to the recruiter’s mantra that experience is everything, an alternative is the internship or apprenticeship. Globally, standards and quality of internship experiences vary, but the investment banking and consulting sectors have led the development of highly competitive, structured and rewarding internships for graduates. The most successful programs are mutually beneficial for graduates and employers and see the chosen few launched into the world of work with all the support and responsibility of a new employee, but without the permanent commitment on either side.

The drawback of the most successful internship schemes, however, is that they become de facto recruitment exercises. A crop of summer interns are expected to become next year’s graduate intake, barring particularly poor performance. This simply shifts the problems of graduate recruitment to earlier in the year and is perhaps not the perfect solution.

Fresh graduates also face a dilemma. For most, the career decisions they make in the weeks and months around their graduation will determine much of their working lives. We expect graduates to pick an industry and a career path, with little or no experience of the world of work, let alone the range of sectors and professions they have to choose from.

Hiring managers and business owners are looking for graduates with skills that can be applied to working in modern companies, while graduates are looking to experience the world of work before committing to a career.

With these problems in mind, it was pleasing  to read about a fresh crop of graduates enrolled in Dubai Business Associates for the class of 2023. The program seeks out elite graduates from across the world for an intensive 9-month management program. Drawing on educational techniques developed for business schools, such as project-based learning, the program combines elements of an MBA with the best elements of competitive internships.

Students are expected to work in teams to solve problems. They are taught strategy, business and leadership. Most importantly, the program concludes with a real-life business challenge, delivering a consulting project to one of the organizations on an impressive list of commercial partners: Dnata, Dubai Department of Economy and Tourism (DET), Dubai Holding, Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC), DP World, Emirates, Jumeirah and the Museum of the Future.

There are only a handful of such programs open to new graduates globally, and with the backing of PwC’s Academy Middle East, CAPADEV and Bon Education, this programs rivals the best summer internships as an option after college. Perhaps most interestingly, Dubai Business Associates gives graduates from as far afield as Austria, Kazakhstan, the United States and Vietnam the exposure to the unique business environment found in Dubai.

There is a challenge here for universities. As graduate courses like these proliferate, filling the gap between college, internships and MBAs, business owners will look at the experience of management course graduates and wonder why all college tuition can’t work like this. Could university courses of the future better prepare graduates for the world of work? Could the seminar room look more like an office, the lecture hall more like a business conference?

Time will tell, but as students increasingly shop around internationally for courses and choose universities based on future employment prospects, it’s easy to see how a more business-friendly approach to learning could win out.

Darby Jones

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