Size really does matter when it comes to your MBA. Indeed the Association of MBA's accreditation criteria demand a minimum annual intake of 75; below that a school may not have sufficient resources to run an MBA programme properly. That said, this doesn't necessarily mean that the smaller schools have less to offer. Indeed, keeping things neat has a number of advantages, argues Steve Robinson, director of executive MBA programmes at Ashridge, which has deliberately confined its annual student intake to no more than 30.
"Our size is our greatest selling point, and one of the main reasons students come to take an MBA at Ashridge," he says. "One of the benefits of coming here is the greater access you get to faculty staff. You're much better off if there's just 30 people wanting to see someone rather than 180, and in the classroom academics are obviously more able to interact with their students when the numbers are smaller."
Indeed, a quick glance through the Association of MBA's Guide to Business Schools will show larger differences in staff-student ratios. Some of the smaller schools, for instance, have almost as many staff as students, whereas some larger schools may have one faculty member for every three students.
But it's not just improved access to academic staff that smaller schools can offer. Other support staff can be as essential in helping you gain the most from your MBA. The overall size of the intake will also affect the culture and service levels, and how much personal attention you get, points out Anthony Birts, director of MBAs at the University of Bath School of Management, which currently has an annual intake of around 80.
"If a school has 200 students but only one careers officer, you won't get very much time with them. It's the same for access to computers and to administration staff."
However, it's often the atmosphere that attracts many people to the smaller schools, says Professor Rick Crawley, director of MBA programmes at Lancaster University Management School, which has 70 students on its full-time MBA.
"All our students say we have a very relaxed culture, which means the possibility for students to have informal access to the faculty is high compared with other places. In top schools there's a tendency for the stars to want to strut their stuff and waltz off again, but we're not a very status-conscious place. Members of the faculty are happy to hang around and talk to the students. It's much easier if you limit the size in the way we have done."
Birts believes that being a small school also promotes a feeling of intimacy that might be missing from larger establishments: "Particularly for students coming from abroad, they like the idea of coming to a campus environment where they can be known. When you're one of 70, you're not a number, you're a person."
However, one of the key questions to consider when it comes to size is the numbers in the actual classroom or seminars. Schools with larger intakes may nevertheless retain the virtues of compactness by breaking students up into smaller groups for teaching. Generally, the smaller the class size, the better, with 30-50 considered the largest manageable group.
Bath, for instance, splits its intake into two groups of 40, although numbers may well be much smaller when it comes to choosing options and electives.
"An awful lot does depend on the willingness of people to pitch in," says Birts. "With larger numbers it becomes easier for people to hide and say nothing. It can easily slip into chalk and talk with no interaction. You're really after a small, intimate atmosphere where no one feels intimidated about chipping in."
But it's not all roses being small, he admits. "The bigger you are, the faster your alumni group grows and the more companies are prepared to take you seriously and come to you on the milk round. You certainly do have to work a lot harder if you're smaller, because the larger schools will always tend to have a higher profile. Reputation is crucial; after all students are buying into that brand for the rest of their lives."
SMALL AND FRIENDLY WINS THE DAY
VAL MOORE is strategy development manager at Nat West Mortgage Services in Birmingham. She took a full-time MBA at Lancaster two years ago, when she was 35.
"I'd been working for Nat West bank since 1983 in retail credit. When I decided I wanted to do something more challenging, someone suggested doing an MBA. I won a scholarship to attend Lancaster, and I was really attracted to the fact that it has got such a small and friendly campus.
"There were just 56 people on my course, but that covered 23 different nationalities. I really wanted to get to know people from different countries and learn about their different cultures. That's much easier when there are not so many of you.
"The size of the group was great from a social point of view as we didn't have to split up and we could have activities together as a group. Academically, too, it was very informal. We were able to ask questions during the lectures, and even those staff who were only there for a few weeks got to know everyone's names. You always felt you could approach people, whether they were academics or fellow students.
"The most refreshing thing was the real willingness to share and the great atmosphere of mutual cooperation and support. We'd often meet up in the bar, so that one student who had a better grasp of something could explain it to the others. I've heard that in some larger schools people are far more competitive and less concerned with helping each other along."