New universities - Marks & Spencers of business schools?

Choosing a top business school can mean paying huge fees. But if you're not planning to work for a blue chip firm, new universities provide highly reputed courses that are cheaper, more flexible and serve a local audience.
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The Independent Culture
If you're looking for value for money along the High Street of business schools, try your local university. In the elite group of institutions with Association of Master of Business Administration (AMBA) accreditation for their MBAs, the new universities are well represented. Only 30 out of the 112 colleges and universities which offer MBAs meet the strict AMBA criteria, and of these, seven are from the former polytechnic sector.

Strict though the AMBA criteria on staffing, curriculum, staff-student ratios and research may be, Peter Calladine of AMBA says that there is plenty of scope for the new universities to maintain their own distinctive mission.

"Every business school has its own objectives," he says. "Some choose to go for an international market and some aim to satisfy demand from business and industry on a regional basis. Our mission is to make sure that what carries our name is of high quality."

Business schools in new universities are not an unknown quantity. Many have been going for years. "What people tend to forget is that in business and management education the new universities have significant depth of experience," says Prof. Abiz Ghobadian of Middlesex University, which runs full-time, part-time and distance learning MBA courses, currently being redesigned to a common structure so students can mix and match if their circumstances change.

Kingston University, to the south-west of London, runs one of the oldest MBA courses among the new universities. Launched in 1984, it is successful enough, according to Dr. Phil Samuel, to be highly selective. The course is offered either by evening study for two evenings a week or as an open learning package with a monthly weekend at the business school.

"We get about 3,000 enquiries for each entry of 100 students," Dr. Samuel says. "We actually hold an open day in order to discourage some of those who have expressed an interest from applying. The average age of candidates is 35 and we want them to have had five years of senior management experience. There is a tough selection process. We offer places on the basis of a whole day of tests and interviews."

Although Kingston says that most of the MBA students are "local", this applies to an area where a reckoned 75 per cent of key organisations are within a 25 mile radius. Employers and students are so committed that when people are posted abroad, they fly back once a month for their weekend sessions, usually at their employers' expense. So far they have had monthly visits from students in the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Greece, the Middle East and the USA, which serves as some indication of the persistence of those selected for the course.

Flexibility of teaching methods was always one of the strengths of the new universities, and the business schools are continuing the tradition. On the other side of London at Middlesex University, they are piloting the use of an internal "intranet" to link MBA staff and students and pass on high tech versions of learning materials, for instance case studies on CD ROM. The network will give every student an "account" and allow them to contact their tutors and discuss issues with other students. There are even possible uses in some assessment tasks.

One of the advantages of a new university business school MBA, particularly for students who do not get help from their employers, is that the fees are considerably lower than at the prestigious international schools - their eyes set on competing with Harvard - where a charge of pounds 15,000 is not uncommon.

They range from Kingston and Manchester Met, which both charge pounds 9000 for their MBA courses, to the pounds 6,250 charged by the School of Business at de Montfort University in Leicester. Middlesex offers a limited number of scholarships for its own graduates who want to take a masters' course. But the AMBA accredited course leaders would argue that they are competing not on price but on quality.

If the recruitment focus for the part-time MBAs is local, this does not mean that the staff are without international contacts or research commitments. Most are involved in collaborative work with universities abroad, or run their own subsidiary operations overseas. Manchester Met has accredited an MBA programme in Prague, de Montfort operates in Jakarta and Johannesburg, Sheffield Hallam runs a course in the Gulf and Malaysia, Westminster University has contact with Eastern and Central Europe and South East Asia.

All AMBA accredited course teachers have to engage in research and some are doing reasonably well in the research Assessment Exercise. Research takes business staff into interesting areas. The business school at Sheffield Hallam University runs five special centres for research in management, financial studies and law, accounting, policy and enterprise. The school at de Montfort University has recently reorganised the Cuban tax system. Manchester Met is one of only two new university business schools recognised for research training. Its centres for business history and policy modelling contribute to the MBA programme, particularly through elective subjects. The business school at Bristol, part of the University of the West of England, is heavily engaged in consultancy with local industry. Clients have included HM Customs and Excise, British Aerospace, Hewlett Packard and Lloyd's Bank.

The new university business schools are not small, and most say that the excellence they claim in MBA teaching is at least partly to do with the long-standing links they have had with local employers. In some cases these go back to the last century when the original colleges provided for the training needs of quite different industries from the ones they deal with now. De Montfort's roots lie in a craft school which was set up to boost the local textile industry.

Despite having the history, they are modernising fast. Manchester Metropolitan University has just moved into high tech new buildings. Sheffield Hallam's award-winning new buildings include a pounds 10 million business and information technology centre. De Montfort MBA students are taught in a purpose-built graduate centre on the university's city-centre campus.

The schools generally run a complete range of undergraduate and graduate programmes, part-time courses for executives and engage in consultancy and work-based projects with local companies. This, says Prof Ghobadian at Middlesex, is one of their strengths.

"We provide a full service at all levels which leads both to greater economies of scale and also to a wider range of specialisms at post-graduate level. Of course we are not the London Business School, which is a highly specialised post-graduate institution. But I think in terms of quality we can claim to be the Marks and Spencers to their Giorgio Armani."