MBA: The Rovers of business

The new universities are offering MBAs with a practical and vocational edge.
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Although it's now eight years since the polytechnics took on university status, old prejudices die hard. The snobbery that surrounds higher education in Britain extends into MBAs. Where Oxford and Cambridge head up the pecking order for first degrees, for MBAs it's the likes of LBS (London Business School), Imperial College and Manchester Business School.

For new universities, as the old polytechnics are now called, this can make life tough. No matter how good their MBA course, many still find themselves tarred as second-best by the old polytechnic brush.

"As far as the MBA market is concerned we do compete with traditional universities and that competition is quite severe," admits Phil Gregory, MBA director at De Montfort University School of Business, "Students, rightly or wrongly, take a view that there is a distinction between old and new universities, and one of our main challenges has been to make inroads into that perception. While overseas people are far less aware of any distinction between the old and the new, in the UK it is still something of a problem.

"That said, in a sense we do not compete. It's like the car market - you've got your Rovers, and your Mercedes and Jaguars. We see ourselves as Rovers; we don't really aim to compete with an institution like Warwick or LBS which are the Mercedes and Jaguars of MBAs. We are providing a less prestigious product, but the market is big enough for us all to thrive."

Peter Calladine, membership services manager at the Association of MBAs, agrees you will generally find a different emphasis and different mix of people at a new university rather than, say, Cranfield or LBS. "The new universities often have students who are looking, at least in the short term, to remain in their job. Basically they want additional training to enhance their career or to get more money, and they probably won't have pretensions to be the next CEO of Zeneca. They simply want to stop being a production manager and make a move into general management, so why not go to the local school?"

But many of the ex-polys are working very hard to give their MBAs the kind of standing that puts them up there with the best. The newest arrival into the Association of MBAs flock - the recently accredited Aberdeen Business School at Robert Gordon University - is actively seeking to maximise its standing in the eyes of students and the education world in general, in line with its avowed aim to become the premier vocational university in the UK.

"One of the challenges we face is attracting faculty teaching staff of the appropriate quality," says Hector Douglas, head of the Aberdeen school. "We've various strategies - projecting a quality image, investing a lot of money in internal staff development, marketing, making more time available for research, financing attendance at conferences - the kind of things that will convince people that teaching here is going to upgrade their careers."

But many new university business schools believe their old poly background is actually an asset when it comes to running an MBA, as they benefit from a pedigree that goes back far further than traditional institutions in terms of business education. "We've been able to take advantage of that for the MBA, building up our relationships with local businesses in terms of secondment places and recruiting students from those businesses on to our part-time programme," says Gregory, "By comparison, the traditional universities are having to work hard to develop those sorts of relationships."

De Montfort prides itself on taking a more practical and vocational approach to the MBA, an approach emphasised by the many staff teaching on the programme who come from an ex-poly background. "They tend to approach teaching from a practical, applied, vocational focus," says Gregory, "whereas I suspect traditional universities still approach business courses with an academic focus."

It's a view that finds favour with Ann Rinsler, MBA course director at Kingston Business School which was first accredited in 1984. As she points out, people usually do an MBA because they want to update and upgrade their management skills and change the way people see them. "Ironically the new universities have greater experience in these sorts of courses, while the older universities felt that business wasn't an academic discipline, and were slow to bring it on board."

Most of the staff involved in the Kingston MBA have clear academic qualifications, but also commercial experience as well, says Rinsler, who trained as a chartered accountant before moving into academic life. "The older institutions tend to take on people who have got a research record from their first degree. There's not that emphasis on the openness to thinking about the commercial environment." That said, even the recent addition of Aberdeen only brings the total number of new universities accredited by the Association of MBA's to seven. Professor Richard Thorpe, director of the graduate business school at Manchester Metropolitan, believes the new universities are effectively disbarring themselves from the association as they offer courses that escalate people up from the bottom.

"Most of the new universities came up through the Council for National Academic Awards. The structured programme involved bringing students through from a certificate of management to a diploma in management studies (DMS) and then to an MBA. But the association sees the MBA as a distinct and coherent qualification designed for experienced managers operating at senior levels."

But De Montfort's Gregory believes the answer is much simpler - fewer new universities are accredited because of the large demand for MBA courses from students who do not meet the current accreditation criteria. The temptation for more cash-strapped institutions to maximise their income by taking on people who, for instance, lack the required work experience can be too great.

"In effect, many schools are deliberately disqualifying themselves from accreditation. They are quite happy to do it so they can recruit students the accredited institutions don't want or can't recruit. Indeed, there have also been a number of traditional universities who've been quite happy to relinquish their accreditation as they've seen it as a constraint to recruitment and they prefer to follow the route of maximising fee revenue."

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