Zeger Degraeve
© FT

When it comes to global rankings, there is only one that counts for many Melbourne residents: its reputation as the most liveable city in the world.

The fact that the Australian city has held this official honour for each of the last five years is a source of pride to many locals, but it is not necessarily a help for Zeger Degraeve, dean of Melbourne Business School.

“It is a blessing but it is also a curse,” the quietly spoken Belgian explains over lunch on his annual summer visit to London.

“To some extent there has been a lack of urgency [to raise the school’s profile internationally] because the quality of life has been good.

“People said why change it? It is fine. We are doing well as we are. Global competitive pressures have not really been on the forefront of people’s minds.”

There is some evidence for concern about complacency. MBS was ranked number 90 in the 2015 FT Global MBA rankings, down from 68 a year earlier.

The school did much better in the Custom executive education ranking, however, taking 26th place in this year’s list, up from 40th in 2014.

While the school splits its resources evenly between degree programmes and executive education, there is a lot of cross-fertilisation to be gained between them, according to Prof Degraeve.

“Executive education offers the means for the faculty to have close links with business and businesses also provide development opportunities for the faculty.”

One of the most significant achievements of Professor Degraeve’s tenure has been the merger of MBS with the faculty of business and economics at the University of Melbourne, enabling the institutions to share resources.

Among the fruits of this agreement has been new courses, such as the pre-experience masters in business analytics, which MBS launched in January.

“It’s an inter-faculty wide programme and it’s been an exciting addition,” Professor Degraeve explains.

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“It’s a blend of analytical skills and business insights, creating students who can talk to business people while at the same time having high practical analytical skills.”

Professor Degraeve has also made significant changes to the internal operations of MBS, shaking up roles such as alumni relations, career services, corporate relations and the coaching and mentoring services provided to students.

“The fundamental policies of the school have always been correct, inspiring teaching and a strong focus on research, but there needed to be a step change in the support services around business education.

“That’s been the most rewarding thing of my tenure really, a completely re-energised group of colleagues, dedicated, focused, high institutional loyalty, just a big difference.”

The results, Professor Degraeve claims, are seen in the quality of the companies MBS students are now finding jobs. “Ten per cent of our last MBA class got jobs at McKinsey, 10 per cent got jobs at Deloitte. We had Johnson & Johnson recruit on campus, Intel, Microsoft, PwC, all blue-chip companies.”

The challenge for Australian schools has long been that the top business schools are to be found on the other side of the globe, in the US and Europe. Professor Degraeve dismisses this as a problem, claiming that the opportunities for MBS lie closer to home in South East Asia.

“Our rivals are in Singapore and Hong Kong, and India maybe a bit,” he says.

The slowdown in the growth in China is not so much of a concern, he adds, because he had already made the admittedly “tough strategic choice” to focus on other Asian markets, particular Indonesia and Malaysia, where the school has opened business development offices.

“Our global competitors were all eager and keen on developing a China presence, [but] as a boutique school, really focused on delivering a highly personalised quality experience, I didn’t want to spread our talent too thinly.”

Giving MBS an international focus is clearly a concern but something that does not phase Prof Degraeve, who claims to feel as at home in Australia as he does in the Belgium and the UK, where he was for many years a faculty member at London Business School.

“Free trade agreements are taking effect, international companies are entering markets, the global competitive economic pressures are real, and it’s about the place of Australia in the world really,” he says.

“It cannot just rest on its laurels and enjoy life.”

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