An MBA will do nicely

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The Independent Culture
THE MBA is by far the UK's most popular postgraduate degree, with a current enrolment figure of around 12,000. And that is only at schools accredited by the Association of MBAs, whose stamp of approval, though unofficial, is the accepted mark of quality assurance. The actual number may be much larger as only around a third of all the institutions offering an MBA are accredited. Oxford University's MBA, for instance, is not accredited because its programme has not been around for long enough to qualify.

The demand for MBA graduates is strongest in consultancy and corporate finance, where it is virtually a career entry requirement. In other sectors, recruiters say it is still at the "nice to have" level for more senior jobs. Sentiment is changing, however, and one reason for that is the beginning of a critical mass of MBAs at top level in UK companies. According to a new survey of over 300 companies by headhunters Korn Ferry International, 41 per cent have one or more MBAs on their board who tend to look favourably on fellow graduates when it comes to making recruitment decisions. In the public sector, with its emphasis on business awareness, an MBA is becoming almost mandatory for jobs at director level. Indeed, a number of schools have set up specialist public sector MBA programmes.

Both the City and consultancy tend to be rather snooty about provenance. "An MBA, but from where?" is the classic question, and the answer had better be the name of a premier division school. Other sectors are, however, more ready to recognise a wider range of schools and part-time and distance learning MBA programmes. The latter in particular are growing much faster than the full-time programmes because they enable participants to combine study with their daytime job. For this reason they generally get employer support and even funding.

Given the intensive way MBAs are being advertised and written about, there must be few ambitious young executives who haven't thought of giving it a go - so what do you get out of it and what does it involve? Research among its members by the Association of MBAs shows that "improving job opportunities" is top of the list of motives. Those studying on MBA courses tend to be 30-something and are either functional specialists looking to expand their business know-how - accountants and engineers are particularly numerous on most programmes - or generalists who feel they are short on their knowledge of functional skills. These are taught in the core courses that form the first third of the programme. The second third deals with more strategic issues, while the final part offers a selection of "electives" in which you can focus on some area of particular interest or career goal. Usually you will also have to write a dissertation of about 15,000 words on some real-life business problem which, in the case of sponsored students, would probably relate to something going on in your own particular organisation.

The desire for more money does not appear to rank high among the reasons for doing an MBA, though this may be a motive that dare not speak its name. In fact, the latest Association of MBAs' survey presents a distinctly rosy picture for people with the qualification. Taking all benefits into account, the average salary of members is over pounds 65,000, though those who move jobs after graduating seem to fare best: a question of prophets being more honoured outside their own country, perhaps. That is not such good news for organisations that sponsor employees on an MBA programme, but it also shows that it's up to employers to create career paths that encourage their best and most highly trained people to stay with them.

Godfrey Golzen is the author of the Association of MBAs' Guide of Business Schools (Finanical Times Planning).