In 2016, the university’s faculty of economic and management sciences launched a new innovative programme. The four-year BCom (International Business) degree is aimed at creating opportunities for students to be more connected to the world, and at “delivering graduates that will be equipped for being role-players in the international knowledge economy”. Some of these students include a handful at Stellenbosch University studying BCom (International Business), a relatively new degree, for which the first group of 22 students ever to complete this programme received their degrees last year.
According to programme coordinator Professor Pierre Erasmus, this programme is the first of its kind in South Africa and a pioneer in business education at undergraduate level in the country.
Professor Erasmus explains why this degree is different to other similar degrees in the country, and why this degree is important in today’s day and age.
In December last year, the first group of 22 students from the BCom (International Business) class of Stellenbosch University received their degrees – please tell us more about this degree and what it entails?
The BCom (International Business) degree is a four-year degree that provides our students with a similar foundation as a BCom (Management Sciences) degree. Throughout the first three years, students are required to complete subjects from the departments of economics and business management. During their final year, they need to major in at least one of three business management subjects (marketing management, financial management, or entrepreneurship and innovation management), while investment management and economics are available as electives. Introduction to intercultural communication, a module developed specifically for the degree, is included with other compulsory modules, such as strategic management and management of corporate social responsibility.
In addition to these subjects offered by the faculty of economic and management sciences, various subjects from the faculty of arts and social sciences also form part of the programme structure. Students successfully need to complete a first-year language module (French, German or Chinese), as well as political science modules in their second and third years. Other electives include philosophy, sociology and social anthropology. The degree also includes a customised subject (legal aspects of international transactions) presented by the faculty of law.
The most exciting feature of the degree, however, is the inclusion of an international exchange semester. In the second semester of their third year, students enrol at one of our partner universities abroad. During this time, they must successfully complete modules presented at the partner university to obtain the required academic credit. While two thirds of the required academic credit must be from subjects within the field of economic and management sciences, students are given free choice in how they earn the remaining credit. For example, previous students selected modules in graphic design, an additional language, local culture and history, fashion management, gender and communication, etc.
It is a fairly new degree at the faculty of economic and management sciences of SU. When was it introduced, and why? What is the purpose of this degree?
I was fortunate to be included in the team involved with the conceptualisation, development and implementation of the degree. We started this process in 2012, and the first group of students enrolled at the start of 2016. The graduation of these students in December 2019 represented one of the major highlights on this lengthy journey. Right from the start, the success of this degree depended on the enthusiasm, commitment and hard work of a team of colleagues from different academic disciplines and support environments. Students who enrolled for the degree have also been making valuable contributions on a continual basis, enabling us to achieve the intended outcomes.
The degree addresses the need to deliver graduates who are equipped to be role-players in a rapidly changing international knowledge economy. Furthermore, it aims to provide students with an enriched student experience through the interaction with international students and the opportunity to explore the global marketplace. It gives students exposure to different settings, and develops their global mindset through a comprehensive and internationally oriented curriculum. It provides a multicultural experience and the opportunity to create a long-lasting network with students from different parts of the world through a structured exchange programme.
One of the main objectives of the BCom (International Business) programme is to deliver graduates who are able to address complex business problems in an international context. Strong emphasis is therefore placed on the development of various skills required to solve multidimensional, abstract problems, as well as the ability to communicate the proposed solutions to these problems effectively.
What makes this degree relevant and unique? Why was the need felt to introduce this degree at the university?
When introduced in 2016, the degree was the first specialised programme in international business in South Africa. While it could therefore be considered as unique within the local context, many European universities have been offering similar qualifications for a number of years. Some of these universities have reached the point where international business is no longer considered a separate, distinct form of commercial activity, but intuitively assumed to be incorporated in any business. When considering the cross-border nature of a typical European company’s activities (or, for that matter, any multinational firm), the relevance of international business becomes clear. Understanding how to manage the added complexities associated with international business is, therefore, highly relevant. It is not only in the field of business that this is the case; since the introduction of the degree, other faculties at SU have also started to develop programmes that incorporate some kind of international exposure.
The degree has been developed to include two key features. First of all, it represents a combination of management sciences and social sciences. Although our students enrol for a degree in management sciences that equips them with the appropriate knowledge and skills, they can supplement it with the relevant social science knowledge. In addition, they benefit from developing their intercultural competence and language skills, improving their ability to communicate efficiently.
Secondly, the balance between a South African focus and international exposure ensures a programme grounded in the South African realities, but equipping students with critical skills and the knowledge required to operate effectively in an international environment. The compulsory semester at a partner university abroad provides students with international exposure, and serves as the ideal opportunity to utilise the skills and knowledge they have acquired, in a different setting. The integration with other international students during their exchange semester also enhances diversity and creates an international classroom that is directly supportive of the development of international business.
Why international business?
A short answer would be that not many examples of local-only business exist anymore in the world we are currently living in. The majority of the large companies operating in South Africa conduct their business across international borders, extending into Africa and far beyond. Increasing globalisation has forced almost all organisations to expand their focus, since the failure to adapt to this changing world ultimately threatens their long-term sustainability. Successfully achieving this is problematic, and we have seen many examples of South African businesses that have destroyed huge amounts of shareholders’ value when attempting to expand internationally.
In addition, advancements in technology are constantly accelerating, and are expected to change the way we do business drastically. To operate successfully within this dynamic and rapidly evolving environment requires adaptability, the ability to address complex problems in a logical and systematic manner, and the ability to communicate efficiently across cultural and language barriers. Our aim is to deliver graduates who are equipped to thrive in this environment.
What career opportunities does this degree open up for students?
Unlike professional degree programmes (for instance, BAcc or BCom (Actuarial Science)) that are intended to prepare graduates for a specific career, the BCom (International Business) degree aims to open up a wide range of different occupations. Career opportunities would be influenced by the way a student decides to structure the degree. As mentioned earlier, students are required to specialise in at least one business management subject in their final year. In addition to these subjects, students could also select economics or investment management as a second area of specialisation. Some of our students have even decided to specialise in three or four subject areas by registering for additional credits beyond what is required for the degree!
Depending on the combination of subjects selected, careers in the fields of finance, marketing, investment management or economics could be pursued. Students specialising in entrepreneurship and innovation management could decide to start their own business. The unique competitive advantage these students can offer includes well-developed communication skills, the ability to adapt to rapidly changing environments, sensitivity to intercultural differences, and an improved understanding of the unique challenges faced when conducting international business. Their critical thinking skills have also been developed to accommodate knowledge from both management sciences and social sciences, enhancing their ability to find solutions to complex business problems. Successful students should therefore also perform extremely well working for large international strategy consultancy firms like McKinsey, Bain or Boston Consulting Group. Some students also intend to pursue careers in nongovernmental organisations (NGOs). When the world is your oyster, the sky’s the limit!
Students take part in an exchange with another university during their degree. What is the purpose of the exchange, and what countries are popular for students to visit for their exchange?
As mentioned earlier, the purpose of the exchange semester is to provide an opportunity where students find themselves in a totally different academic and cultural environment. To succeed, they will have to apply their existing knowledge and skills, identify any limitations that may have a negative impact on their performance, and manage to obtain the necessary knowledge and skills to overcome these challenges. Everything is not only about academic performance, however, and we also recommend that students use the opportunity to travel and to learn more about the local culture. Although we were initially concerned that some students may approach the exchange semester as an extended holiday in an exotic location, it quickly became clear that this would not be the case. Right from the start, students have been motivating their application to attend a specific university based almost exclusively on its academic offering and quality of education.
The number of students allocated to any university is limited, to promote greater interaction with foreign students during the exchange semester. Although we recommend that students consider some of the less traditional alternatives, we do find some preference towards universities located in western Europe. In 2019, a group of 24 students left Stellenbosch to attend 17 different universities located in 12 countries, spread over four continents. Some of the most popular destinations include Utrecht, Amsterdam, Maastricht, Leuven and Munich. Bocconi University, located in the fashion capital Milan, also seems to remain an attractive option. More adventurous students have selected Rio, Malaysia and Singapore, while increased interest in Canadian and Australian universities has been observed over the last two years.
What feedback have you gotten from students about the degree?
Ever since the first announcement about the degree was made, it has been attracting a lot of attention. Potential students are usually extremely excited, and some of them start on this journey as early as grade 11. As programme coordinator, I receive visits from potential students and their parents on a regular basis, and it is amazing to observe how passionate they all are about the degree. Some parents have even returned to thank us for motivating their children to improve their academic performance in order to meet the selection criteria!
In terms of academic content, students have indicated that they find it challenging, but highly rewarding. Although some students initially found it difficult to engage with some social science subjects, they recognised that these subjects helped them to develop greater sensitivity and made them more aware that different approaches are available to solve problems. Based on subject choices, students seem to pursue either a more quantitative or qualitative combination of subjects. The most popular subject appears to be the introduction to intercultural communication, with students considering it to be highly relevant to their degree.
Feedback on the exchange semester is extremely positive. Many students have expressed their surprise to find that SU standards are on par with, or even higher than, those of the international universities they have attended. Students have reported that the exchange semester has changed their views on South Africa and the rest of the world, and they often return to Stellenbosch determined to contribute towards improving local problems like unemployment and poverty. Students also use the exchange semester to build international networks with other international students, while some students have been able to identify options for postgraduate study based on their interaction with staff at the partner university.
We have also identified a few challenges that need to be addressed, based on student feedback. Some students have expressed the need for an even greater number of academic subjects to be included as part of the degree. At the moment, many students complete additional subjects beyond those required for the purposes of the degree. Given the already high credit load of the degree, this serves as testament to these students’ commitment and diligence. (I must confess that as an undergraduate student, my goal was usually to identify the minimum credit required to complete my degree!)
Another point raised is the current lack of specialised postgraduate options available in South Africa. Although students could enrol for an honours degree in their specific field(s) of specialisation, many have indicated that they would prefer to continue directly towards a master’s degree that specialises in international business. A major concern when pursuing studies abroad is affordability; in many cases, the cost of a master’s degree as measured in euros or dollars corresponds to the amount as measured in rands. At this stage, a few students have managed to secure financial support to attend universities abroad. We are currently investigating the demand for postgraduate qualifications of this nature.
How has the degree expanded and evolved since its inception, and how many first-year students are doing the degree this year?
One of the characteristics of the degree is that a limited number of students are allowed to enrol each year. The major reason for this restriction is to ensure that the exchange semester can be planned and monitored carefully. Most of the hard work required to enable students to attend the exchange semester is done by SU International. Providing them with some time to adjust to an increasing number of outward-bound students served as part of the rationale for limiting the number of students. Before literally sending a large group of our students across the globe, we try our best to ensure that they do not find themselves in any dangerous situations, and we constantly monitor the situation in those countries where they are placed. We were extremely grateful that the first group of students were able to graduate without any major problems!
Given the academic, administrative and logistical challenges associated with implementing a degree of this nature, we decided to start relatively small. Only 25 students were allowed to enrol for the first time in 2016. Since then, we have been expanding, and in 2020, we saw 60 students registering as first-years. Despite the high selection criteria set for admission, we have seen a continuous increase in the number as well as the quality of new applicants. Among other things, this trend serves as acknowledgement that the graduate attributes we intend to deliver are in demand. To ensure that the degree remains relevant, continual programme renewal takes place whereby the programme structure is adjusted to reflect changes in the international business environment.
Even after planning something as carefully as we did during the development of this degree, there is always the risk of some unforeseen problem that may arise when implementing it. One of our students going to the USA had to deal with first being snowed in, before experiencing a hurricane and avoiding violent political rallies. During November 2019, we received videos from one of our students attending the Chinese University in Hong Kong, showing the police firing tear gas into a crowd of protesting students. (Despite our attempts to arrange her immediate return to South Africa, she declined the offer in a display of typical South African resilience, and planned her own escape.) More recently, we were relieved that a student was already safely back home from China when news about the coronavirus first started to emerge. We will continue to assess any future expansion based on the best interests of our students.