Most crucial to your decision is the school's reputation. Employers are now less interested in the fact that you have an MBA, than from where you got it. In the US, business schools are ranked by reputation; in the UK, there is less consensus, although an Association of MBA's survey of how employers viewed providers found that London Business School, Warwick, Cranfield, Manchester and Imperial College Management School were ranked top.
There are many other reputable schools, however, and those offered by the new universities are rapidly establishing a good name. As long as the institution is accredited by the Association of MBAs - as more than 30 schools are - you can be assured of the basic quality of their courses, and are free to consider other factors such as course duration, fees, entrance requirements, and the quality of faculty staff and fellow students.
Bear in mind that the top flight schools are more difficult to get into. Prestigious institutions may expect an excellent first degree and significant career progression afterwards - with 50 per cent of MBA learning coming from fellow students, good schools look at what candidates can offer the cohort. You also need to be clear about what you intend to do with your MBA afterwards, says Peter Calladine, membership services manager at the Association of MBAs. "If you're aiming for a career in a big international consultancy, they are probably only going to be interested if you've been to one of the top schools."
Wherever you study, your course will cover the same basics. Designed to instill the full range of skills required for general management or senior functions, MBA core subjects include accountancy and finance, qualitative analysis, economics, marketing, organisational behaviour, human resources, and information technology and strategy. Beyond the core curriculum, you will have a number of options, or electives, according to your career or interests. These can vary widely, but may include subjects such as mergers and acquisitions, consultancy skills, international marketing, Asian business studies, diversity management or small businesses.
Within that framework there are several different ways of getting your MBA. Full-time UK courses usually last a year, and part-time two years, with classes in the evenings, weekends or on day-release. Distance learning, the fastest growing mode of study with more than 10,000 students registered in the UK, usually requires attendance at workshops and residential weekends, and takes an average of three to five years to complete. Many schools also offer a modular MBA, studying each subject in separate slabs of time. You might spend one intense week, for instance, just studying finance and accounting.
The option you choose depends on your preferences and circumstances, says Anthony Birts, director of studies for Bath's full-time MBA. "Full- time suits people who don't really want to stay in their job very much and want to switch direction. It also offers more immersion in the subjects and you don't have to worry about your job."
You also get more team spirit and a much richer cultural mix on a full- time course. "We take 60 per cent of our students from overseas from a spread of countries. It exposes you to a diversity of cultures so you can learn from each other about different ways of thinking and doing things. You can have a lecture on Asian business, for example, but to really get into that way of thinking there's no substitute for having a few Japanese sitting in on the discussion."
The downside is that full-time courses can be personally expensive - very few students obtain company sponsorship compared with those on part-time, distance learning or modular courses, who also have the advantage of still being employed while they study and the ability to spread any personal cost over a longer period of time.
It is also easier to put the skills you learn into practice on a part- time course. "You can fulfil your assignments back at your company the next day, whereas in full-time it's necessarily more theoretical," says Birts. "After all, the MBA is essentially a practical qualification, and you have always got to have your feet on the ground."
According to the Association of MBAs, half of students have all their fees paid by employers, a further 20 per cent receiving part of the cost.Self-payers often use savings, or take out a career development or bank loan through the Association of MBAs' own finance scheme. An MBA is not cheap - tuition fees average pounds 7-8,000 and a one-year course can cost pounds 30,000 with living expenses.
Costs vary. For a full-time MBA, London Business School charges pounds 21,000, Cambridge pounds 17,500, and Ashridge pounds 15,000 - compared with pounds 7,000 at Sheffield Hallam and pounds 7,200 at Birmingham.
Part-time courses are more unpredictable. At LBS, they are pounds 4,000 more than full-time but pounds 1,700 less at Sheffield Hallam.
Prices from Association of MBAs' Guide 1997/98
The part-time student
Chris Bryan formed Industrial Magic Software with his partners Nick Bruin and Martin Hunt while taking a part-time MBA at Ashridge Management College.
"After 10 to 15 years working in software development, I was technically very good, but feeling rather boxed in. I saw an MBA as a way of broadening my skills and opening new horizons. A full-time course seemed like a lot of commitment, and I felt it put the whole thing out of context - I wanted to apply the skills in a work environment, otherwise it could just be loads of theory.
When I was made redundant after the first year, I decided to fulfil a long-term goal and set up my own company with Nick, whom I had met through the college. The idea came from a joint MBA project looking at how small engineering companies used computer software. Having an MBA reduced the fear and uncertainty of a new venture. It gave us a framework to decide what was important and what we had to achieve. We can also understand our clients much better, see the pressures they're under and develop software solutions that fit their needs and are consequently easier to sell."
The distance learner
Pam Welford works as a finance and administration manager for FLS Aerospace. She finished her distance learning MBA at Strathclyde in 1993.
"After finishing my degree, I qualified as an accountant, but then felt I wanted to expand my horizons and be involved at a broader level, so I decided to do an MBA. I thought the qualification might open up opportunities for me if I took a career break, especially if I was going to take time off to have a baby.
I was doing it off my own bat, and this kind of course was much more flexible. I could do it in my own time, and work it around my other commitments. I enjoyed learning about things I wasn't normally involved in, but you do have to be self motivated and have the discipline to sit down and do it on your own.
When I applied for the job at FLS Aerospace, it came down in the end to two people at interview and the MBA swung it for me. I'm still doing accountancy but I now have a lot more opportunities to add value to the business and contribute ideas on more than just a financial level." The full-timer
Nichola Habach now works as a consultant in human resources for Coopers and Lybrand after completing a full-time MBA at Bath
"After a business studies degree I spent five years in human resources line roles. The next step was HR manager in a bigger company or business unit, but I thought there's got to be more to life than this. A MBA was a way of reassessing if I was really going in the direction I wanted.
I opted for a full-time course because I felt all that study was too much on top of a full-time job. I didn't have too many personal or financial commitments, so could take a year out of work. I saved to pay the pounds 8,000 fees and survived on a pittance for a year.
The biggest change the MBA made was in my attitude to risk. I took a couple of short-term contracts and applied for all kinds of jobs including consultancy. I ended up with Coopers and Lybrand working as an HR consultant. I know they would not have taken me on without an MBA."Reuse content