Do you need to be a master of business?

You don't have to be in commerce to reap the benefits of an MBA. From charities to schools, business awareness is in ever increasing demand, says Godfrey Golzen
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The Independent Culture
The title Master of Business Administration suggests a degree mainly for those aiming to make their mark in industry and commerce. But these days there are an increasing number of students, particularly on part-time and distance learning programmes, who come from a different background altogether: local authorities, civil servants, NHS managers, doctors, nurses, teachers and even charity workers. The reason is that in all these sectors there are budgets and people to manage, priorities to be decided and targets to be met. Business awareness is becoming mandatory, even for those whose activities and career aims are a long way removed from the concerns of the marketplace. So how is an MBA going to help to develop that?

The first thing to consider is your own suitability. One of the things that most bothers people about doing an MBA is how good you have to be at maths. The core part of the MBA programme, which makes up the first third of the course, takes you through the basic skills of management. They include subjects like marketing, business economics, information systems, and human resource management, but also bring in financial accounting and statistics.

Quantitative methods are a doddle for those with a business, science or engineering background, but the less numerate - known as "poets" in business school jargon - tend to struggle. However, the schools insist that anyone with O level maths can get through an MBA because the teaching of the more numerate parts of the programme is done in an accessible way which tempers the wind to the mathematically shorn lambs. Furthermore, much of the work is done in small groups with complementary skills and students say that a lot of informal coaching and help goes on between them. Even on distance learning programmes, where personal contact is more limited, students form small work groups and meet informally at evenings and weekends.

One of the main differences between doing an MBA and a first degree is that while there is a certain amount of conventional chalk and talk in the classroom, much of the learning consists of students from a wide variety of backgrounds, learning from each other. Though there are exams to be passed as well, individual contributions to the group and to the class are part of the assessment process. This is more difficult on distance learning programmes but communication via e-mail is a growing feature there. Brushing up on your keyboard skills is important, not only for this reason but because you have to be able to churn out work quickly and use simple computer programmes like spreadsheets. Schools are well equipped with computer facilities, but if you are doing a distance learning MBA you will probably need a laptop.

Everyone agrees the MBA is extremely hard work, particularly in the early stages because of the sheer amount of material to be got through. It gets a little easier as you go along, partly because in the later parts of the course you can focus on areas of particular interest to you. Even so, a part-time or distance learning degree takes up 15 to 20 hours a week on top of your ordinary job and that goes on for at least two years. It means putting your social life on hold during that time and it also involves getting support from employers - it simply can't be combined with long hours at the office. The good news is that failure rates are quite low, though the jury is still out on distance learning programmes where drop-out levels are said to be high, but are hard to monitor because students are reluctant to admit they have actually abandoned their course.

And the financial rewards? Students from not-for-profit sectors are less motivated by the financial payback of the MBA, but once you graduate there are lots of employers who would love to meet you. That's a comforting thought while you burn the midnight oil.