Movers and shakers go to school

Philip Schofield advises students to shop around to find just the right MBA course
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Opinions differ about the value of taking a Masters in Business Administration. According to some, it merely produces crown princes with few practical, hands-on management skills. Others say that it develops first-class general managers with a sound grasp of strategy and good problem- solving skills. So is an MBA a good career investment, bearing in mind that it involves making considerable sacrifices?

Studying for a full-time Masters in Business Administration (MBA) will take from 10 months to two years, depending on where it is taken. As only a few full-time MBA students are sponsored by employers or get any financial help, it usually costs a small fortune in fees and living costs, not to mention the lost earnings.

On the other hand, if you take a part-time or distance-learning MBA, you are very likely to get some form of financial support from your employer. But then you must combine a demanding job with intensive evening and weekend study for two or more years. This affects the whole family. Are the sacrifices worth it?

The answer is a qualified yes, depending on your career aspirations and your choice of MBA programme. Last year a survey of more than 700 managers by the Institute of Management (IM), The Qualified Manager, found that the MBA is the most highly-rated of all qualifications. It was the one most likely to help improve business knowledge, help you to take a general management view, provide evidence of your abilities, improve promotion prospects, improve chances of employment, and give you the opportunity to refocus or relaunch your career.

The latest salary and career survey of the Association of MBAs, published this month, shows that graduates from MBA courses accredited by the Association now earn an average of pounds 53,700. This is an increase of almost 15 per cent on 1995. They are also highly employable, with more than half of those who move to new organisations applying for 10 positions or less. Some 16 per cent apply for just one position - and get it.

This survey of almost 1,600 MBAs in Britain found the main aim in taking an MBA is to improve job opportunities. This is followed, in order, by a wish for a business qualification, for intellectual stimulation, to get generalist rather than specialist skills, to increase salary, and to change career direction. The survey found that the MBA largely met students' expectations. Over 45 per cent felt that their aims had been met completely. Most of the rest believed that their objectives had been partially met.

It is important to note that the students in the survey graduated from high-quality courses accredited by the Association of MBAs. There are now 111 UK "business schools" offering MBAs, and standards are very variable. The Association accredits courses at only 33 UK schools. Average salaries, employment opportunities and levels of satisfaction from other schools may well be lower.

To get the most from an MBA, it is important to choose a programme that suits your particular needs. The MBA is no longer a single programme of study. Business schools have been very skillful in creating niche markets for themselves. Course content and teaching methods, as well as timetables and methods of delivery, vary from school to school.

A typical course consists of a core curriculum covering each key management function - such as finance, marketing, operations management, strategic planning and human resources. These were traditionally taught as separate subjects, but some business schools now take an inter-disciplinary approach more akin to what happens in real life.

The core programme is usually supplemented by a choice of "electives". Some schools offer thematic packages of electives so you can specialise in a particular sector. Some are tailored to people who want to specialise in a function such as marketing, procurement, project management or facilities management. Others are aimed at particular sectors of the economy, such as banking and finance, the public sector, the legal profession, real estate, retailing, hospitality, housing, and oil, gas and petroleum. If your interests lie in management consultancy or in the City, a course based on case studies and involving high levels of rigorous quantitative analysis may suit you best. In Britain, The London Business School is particularly highly regarded.

In other sectors, a course using work-based projects may be better. The Institute of Management survey found that these are "twice as popular as case studies or other exercises as managers need to be sure the work they do to gain qualifications is as close to their real life responsibilities as possible".

Increasing numbers of employers recognise the value of sending their managers on an MBA programme as part of their career development programme. This is usually on a part-time or distance-learning MBA. Such an opportunity should be welcomed, even though you will probably have to pay at least some of your own costs. However, a programme open to people from all industries and sectors is preferable, from an individual's point of view, to a consortium or company MBA. Not only do closed MBAs limit the learning experience of sharing the experiences of managers from many backgrounds, but their value in the jobs market is limited.

The greatest frustration for MBA students is that many who stay with their original employer find their new skills are neither used nor rewarded. No wonder that many have a reputation for moving on to new pastures.