MBA: Take your pick of the bunch

The soaring number of MBA courses means you need to do your research before applying.

Gone are the days when an MBA was considered exotic. Now it's the fastest growing UK postgraduate qualification - some 9,000 students graduate with one every year. Ten years ago there were only 50 UK providers: now there are 116.

Indeed, an MBA is fast becoming a prerequisite for a management career, as both individuals and organisations realise a broad range of management skills is crucial in today's more integrated and global business environment. "While there's extreme variation in the quality of delivery between the best and the worst institutions, overall the MBA is gaining great ground in the marketplace," says Professor Leo Murray, dean at Cranfield School of Management, "You only have to look at the number of jobs ads that require one."

But today's prospective MBA has a much more realistic view about how it'll enhance their career, says Edinburgh University's director of full- time MBAs, Richard Kerley: "We're seeing far fewer people who see it as an open door to a hugely demanding job in a major organisation. Applicants now take a more considered approach, and are far less likely to see it simply as a meal ticket."

Basically, a good MBA will give you a range of skills required for general or senior level management, including accountancy and finance, qualitative analysis, economics, marketing, organisational behaviour, human resources, and information technology and strategy. Beyond the core curriculum, you'll have various options or electives, that may include such subjects as mergers and acquisitions, consultancy skills, international marketing, diversity management, small businesses.

While an MBA is invaluable for those with technical, arts or traditional professional qualifications who want to move into general management, there are many reasons for doing one - to kick-start a change of career, broaden your portfolio of skills, secure promotion, or boost your salary. In addition, many MBAs find it a great confidence-booster, says Amanda Brook, external relations manager at Bath School of Management:

"Graduates talk of it enhancing their confidence, partly from gaining an understanding of a broad range of business areas and an ability to communicate credibly with specialists in finance or IT, for example, but also from mastering subjects in your weak areas. It helps you approach future challenges with a much more positive attitude."

With so many providers here and abroad, choosing a school is not easy. For students and employers alike, reputation can be crucial. A big international consultancy, for instance, will probably only consider you if you've been to a top school. There are many other reputable schools, and, as long as the institution is accredited by the Association of MBAs, you can be assured of the basic quality of its course, and focus on other factors, such as duration, fees, entrance requirements, and the quality of faculty. Do consider too, the quality of your likely cohort: "A lot of programmes are struggling and filling up with non-UK students," warns Murray. "You don't necessarily want a programme where 90 per cent are non-British."

Fortunately the growth in MBAs has led to a range of study options, including full-time, part-time, modular and distance learning. Full-time programmes usually last one year, and part-time 2-3 years, with classes taking place in the evening, during weekends, or on day-release. Distance learning is the fastest growing mode of study, with over 10,000 students currently registered in the UK.

"Although people still think of an MBA as a 27-year-old doing full-time study, the typical student is a part-time or distance learner, 30-40 years old," says Peter Calladine, membership services manager at the Association of MBAs. "It's a throwback from the early Nineties when the domestic job market was terrible and people were not prepared to give up a their job as well as pay tuition fees."

Indeed part-time or distance learners are much more likely to attract corporate sponsorship; around 80 per cent are supported by employers, against very few on full-time courses, where there is no guarantee students will return to the firm.

That said, full-time study has distinct advantages. "It can be less stressful than trying to juggle a career and studying," says Calladine. "You've burnt your bridges and can focus on a new career, and you benefit from a general perception that full-timers are more dynamic, less risk averse, with a great deal of confidence and determination."

Cranfield also opposes distance learning because of the lack of peer contact. "A good MBA should have basic management skills, such as reading a balance sheet and the ability to solve business problems, but they should also have undergone personal development in areas such as leadership skills, team-working, and so on," says Murray, "For that you really do need regular contact with your cohort."

When it comes to applying for an MBA, good research and common sense are essential. It's fine to make multiple applications - institutions usually accept more students than they actually expect to turn up, says Richard Kerley. "Indeed we usually expect brighter candidates to apply to three or four places - it's one of the tests of their seriousness and how much they have thought about what they're doing." But if you apply for 10 or 12, you will look trivial, he warns: "It will be obvious you've not thought clearly about what you're doing, because you should be applying to institutions in roughly the same ranking."

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