It's best to keep your distance

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For workers who want to get a degree to their name but can't afford to quit their job, the distance learning option is a boon, writes John Izbicki

IT WAS the best timing - and the worst - when Suzanne Lawrence sat three of her most important examination papers in Singapore. She had already passed all her other Master of Business Administration (MBA) exams by distance learning. Only three remained.

The first she sat on the day before she was rushed to hospital in labour; the second she took on the day after the caesarean section delivery of her daughter Alexandra; and the third she sat the following day, in hospital. It had to be interrupted for a mid-exam feed.

Suzanne, 30 last month, was manager at Bromley Hospital, south London, until her engineer husband, Simon, was given a senior job with the Singapore underground. She is waiting for Alexandra, now five months, to be a little older so she can put her MBA to good use and start a man- agement consultancy in health.

After she received her results from the University of Warwick Business School - a good pass all round - she told programme staff: "I would recommend a general anaesthetic and a baby as a great way to get your exams in perspective. Both leave you completely anxiety-free and able to focus on the matter in hand."

A remarkable story, illustrating not only the eagerness of students to succeed, no matter what "little obstacles" stand in their way, but the growing popularity of the MBA degree taken away from the campus. When Warwick launched its MBA distance learning programme in 1986, 286 students registered. This year 384 signed on. In all, the Business School has 1,500 MBA students in 70 countries.

Distance learning is rapidly becoming the thing to do. And obtaining this higher degree by remote control with the help of videos, the internet and old-fashioned pen and paper, is all the rage. Take a few bland statistics: in 1990, of a total of 4,080 men and women who graduated with an MBA only 220 did so by distance learning. Just five years later, the total graduation figures had all but doubled to 8,053 - but the distance learning total had soared by 850 per cent to 1,869.

And that's only within the UK. Add the British university-validated MBAs taken by truly distant learning methods in Moscow or Melbourne, New York or Nairobi, and the figures reach astronomical proportions. If one were to look at the OU alone, more than 190,000 managers have so far taken courses at certificate, diploma and MBA level.

The distance learning MBA has become big business for Britain's hard- pressed higher education institutions, so much so that the country's biggest university has jumped aboard. I can disclose that the University of London, which already has some 24,500 overseas students sitting its degrees externally, will be offering an MBA and postgraduate diploma in International Management from September. It will include six compulsory core courses, all on an international plane: accounting and finance, marketing, human resources management and organisational behaviour, operations management, business strategy and business economics. There will also be two choice options, which could include the challenges facing multinational enterprises and international business law. All-in-all, it is likely to prove a popular addition to the university's external programmes.

The University of London will be the 113th institution to offer the MBA. Of these, only 31 are accredited by the Association of MBAs. This does not mean the others are "no good", but that they have either not applied for accreditation or have failed the AMBA's rigorous criteria. And of the 31 AMBA-accredited institutions, only seven offer the MBA by distance learning.

Aston, for example, registers every participant as a part-time student in the Aston MBA programme and assesses both methods in the same way. So the degree awarded is the regular Aston MBA and not a special distance learning version. It also video-records live MBA sessions as they are being taught. So students get the feel of being on campus, attending a lecture, rather than having to make do with correspondence courses. The lecturers presenting Aston's video modules are also available to students for advice via telephone, fax and e-mail and face-to-face at weekend seminars.

The OU, which has more experience than most of distance learning, having practised it for 27 years, has a business school with students in more than 30 countries. Last year, the school, which has more than doubled its export earnings and has a turnover of around pounds 24m, was presented with the Queen's Award for Export Achievement.

A little over a month ago, the school launched an international webcast which allowed employees of a company of human resource consultants to sit in 27 offices dotted about the globe to see and hear Charles Edwards, a senior member of the MBA course team, deliver a lecture about the programme. Afterwards, the employees who were as far apart as Australia, India and Hungary, were able to ask questions and receive their answers live on a text-based "chat" facility.

So why don't all universities providing MBA courses offer them on a distance- learning basis? Cranfield University, for instance, produces a goodly annual crop of MBA-holding managers. Martyn Jones, director of Cranfield's full-time MBA, said the course combined the personal learning process with the context in which that learning takes place and the specific content of the programme.

"We believe all three elements are crucial to producing managers who not only have managerial knowledge but have the personal skills to put what is learned into action. Interaction is the key to this and the benefits of the approach would be lost through distance learning," he said. Most distance learners are holding down jobs and studying whenever they can muster the spare time. Some believe this is not the ideal method.

Peter Calladine, membership secretary of the AMBA, believes that distance learning while in a managerial post is found by most students to be of advantage. "What they learn on a Monday, they can implement on Tuesday. This way, they get their investment back, and with interest."

MBAs at a distance: three case studies

Derek Caddie

Derek, 44, is a change manager within the property services division of the Bank of England, where he is designing and implementing changes in working methods, following the Bank's many redundancies as its staff works out the transfer of the new City regulatory body set up by the Government. Although he has worked for the Bank all his life, he had no formal qualifications and chose to study with the Open University Business School. He was able immediately to "test the excellent strategic management module in real working conditions". His advice to potential MBA students: "If in doubt, don't hold back: do it. The doubts will just vanish once you get involved with the study itself."

Ruth Gee

Ruth, 50, who has been appointed by Education Secretary David Blunkett to set up and head British Training International, which sells British educational know-how, such as NVQs and SVQs, and training overseas, decided to take an Open University MBA. She was previously deputy leader of the Inner London Education Authority, chief executive of Edge Hill College of Higher Education, where she managed a pounds 17m budget, and head of the Association for Colleges, in charge of the country's 375 further education colleges. Now she studies every spare moment. "I want academic credibility, and the MBA gives you much more than that. It helps you to think strategically about everything you are doing and trying to achieve."

Gregor Townsend

Scotland's rugby star, with 23 international caps, plays for Northampton and travels between there and Scotland to train for those big prestige matches against France, New Zealand, England and Wales. His prize honour: being selected for the British Lions tour of South Africa. Previously, he worked for the Royal Bank of Scotland but found it difficult to continue in a full-time job after rugby turned professional. So he signed on for a part-time MBA at Aston University. "I found the course very flexible and distance learning ideal," he says. "I'm able to fit in my studies around my training." And Gregor's ambition? "To go into business management, most probably within sports."