Stephen Hodges, President of Hult International Business School
Stephen Hodges, President of Hult International Business School © Anna Gordon

The recent rush of business school mergers has been brutal on academics, staff and students alike, with job cuts, axed programmes and public outcry. But the architects of the operational merger between Ashridge and Hult International Business School, completed last week after a 14-month gestation, faced complexities that put the others in the shade.

For unlike the mergers of US-based Thunderbird and Arizona State University or Henley and the University of Reading in the UK, the US Hult and UK Ashridge alliance meant the alignment of accreditation processes and degree-awarding powers in both countries.

Perhaps surprising, then, that it has been completed with neither job losses nor public outcry. A £50m donation from the Hult family clearly eased the process, but the two schools, that pride themselves on teaching management practice rather than management theory, have demonstrated an arguably rare case of business schools practising what they preach.

The upside

Hult president Stephen Hodges says the diversity of the two schools was not all bad news. “That made it in some ways more complex, in some ways more simple.” The two schools had little overlap in programmes, for example. Ashridge is an executive education specialist, Hult has a large undergraduate programme as well as masters level degrees. In practice, Ashridge will close both its MBA and EMBA programmes.

A computer scientist by academic qualification and a manager and consultant by professional expertise, Dr Hodges also emphasises the similar culture of the two schools, where professors have come from industry or had some industrial experience, and where no professors have tenure. “Once the faculty see more of each other, the more they realise they are similar.”

When Hult has recruited from university-based business schools, it has targeted adjunct academics, adds Dr Hodges. “They feel like second-class citizens because they’re not tenure track. They feel more at home in a school that values teaching expertise.”

This emphasis on management practice has been one of the stumbling blocks for Hult in building international academic credibility, as Dr Hodges is the first to acknowledge. “It was always levelled as a weakness of the school.”

Ashridge, on the other hand, has a reputation for quality practical research and Hult is hoping to build on that. “We want a more dynamic forward-looking research agenda,” says Dr Hodges.

For Ashridge, which faced a brutal few years as the executive education business contracted during the recession, the benefit is that it will now have the infrastructure to teach executives in all Hult’s campuses, in the US, China, and the UAE, as well as the UK.

The downside

To the outside eye, the alliance will be presented as a single operation, with a single staff and faculty. In total there will be 150 full-time academics and a further 300 adjuncts, 4,000 degree students, studying on bachelor, masters, MBA and EMBA programmes, as well as 6,000 executive course participants.

However beneath the surface the dual legal structure will remain. As Hult and Ashridge are both charities, they cannot be legally merged, says Dr Hodges. The schools will also retain separate degree awarding powers, and from 2016 all graduates will receive two certificates.

Most of the work over the past year has been in aligning the quality assurance processes — Hult degrees are approved by Neasc (the New England Association of Schools and Colleges) and those of Ashridge by the QAA (Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education). The merger team mapped out all the requirements of both and then required all programmes to meet the higher of the two standards.

Dr Hodges is now hoping the credibility boost accorded by Ashridge will persuade accreditation bodies to extend their approval to Hult — Equis and AACSB already accredit Ashridge. “Hult has always said that we would look to be accredited,” says Dr Hodges, “but that we would not sell our souls to get it.”

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