People view the MBA as the way to improve their career prospects. Many on full-time MBAs are looking for a career change; they want to change direction, or find work which is more interesting and fulfilling. Some, though not all, of these are seeking to go it alone once they have graduated and set up their own companies. Others are keen to boost their salaries and see the MBA as the way to do this.
According to the latest survey from the Association of MBAs, the qualification certainly helps to increase your salary. A manager taking an MBA can expect a pay rise of 42 per cent after graduation. Even if you adjust that figure for salary inflation during the period of study, the increase attributable to an MBA is still significant - 27 per cent.
People who had an MBA qualification were earning an average of pounds 53,700 in November 1997, which was 15 per cent up on 1995. The figure will, of course, be higher now. The median salary for MBAs was pounds 44,000, the average being boosted by the small number earning pounds 100,000 or more. So, it certainly pays to get an MBA, though people tend to benefit more financially when they are young, able to move jobs and have plenty of income-earning potential ahead of them.
All of which helps to explain why demand for MBA programmes is buoyant, especially at the top end of the market. When one gets below the top five to ten schools, however, it's a different story. Less glitzy schools are finding it hard to recruit British students except onto part-time programmes.
Cranfield, one of the leading five business schools in Britain with an intake of 200 to its full-time MBA, reports that applications are 25 per cent up on last year - and last year was a record too. "The full-time market is absolutely fantastic," says director Leo Murray.
The same phenomenon is evident at Bath - a small school. Applications to Bath's full-time qualification are a staggering 150 per cent up on last year, partly, says External Relations Manager Amanda Brook, because Bath's reputation is growing. It is one of the few business schools to have won the top grade 5 for research and the highest score for teaching. Both Cranfield and Bath are able to maintain a ratio of 50/50 home to overseas students. Many schools cannot do this because of the difficulties they have recruiting British students: it is common to find overseas students making up 80 per cent of the student body for full-time MBAs.
Applications are rising despite the cost. This September, Cranfield's full-time MBA will set you back pounds 18,500 including the purchase of a lap- top computer. Last year the Cranfield MBA was pounds 3,500 cheaper. Top schools are increasingly differentiating themselves by charging more. They believe the market can bear it and that students will pay the extra cost because of the added value an MBA from a top institution brings. Another leading school which has raised its MBA price by a similar amount is Warwick. You now have to pay pounds 17,000 for a one-year MBA from Warwick, compared with pounds 14,000 last year
By comparison, full-time MBA tuition at Bath (pounds 12,250) and Lancaster (pounds 12,500) looks relatively cheap. Durham costs even less - pounds 9,750 a year. And Leeds is a bargain at pounds 8,000 for EU students.
Clearly the cost of the course is a crucial consideration for anyone contemplating an MBA and funding themselves. Your choice will also be affected by whether or not you're prepared to take a year off work. One of the trends of the decade has been the increase in the number of people choosing to undertake their MBA part-time, by distance learning or the modular route. That way they can wrap study around their jobs and receive sponsorship from their employers.
The drawback of doing an MBA while continuing to work is that it is very hard work. Your social life takes a severe knock and it takes longer to acquire your MBA - two to three years is the average. However, the advantages are obvious: you don't lose your place in the job market and you are earning money.
Another way in which schools are differentiating themselves from one another is by putting on specialist MBAs. One of the newest is the MBA in entrepreneurship at Manchester, a part-time qualification aimed at owner-managers, which uses video conferencing and the Internet. That way harassed entrepreneurs can study without having to attend the business school.
The increasing use of new technology to reach busy adults is a notable feature of the MBA scene. Henley Management College, for example, has a new "City-friendly" MBA starting this October, which will use a blend of distance learning, self-study and face-to-face tuition, and which is being run with the Financial Training Company in London.
Business schools have to respond to the market. That is why some run single-company MBAs, where they go into partnership with a company and provide a part-time qualification for their senior executives. Lancaster, for example, has one with Bass and another with British Airways. Other schools prefer to operate consortium MBAs whereby a group of companies come together to fund a programme tailored to their specific needs.
Ashridge Management College has a consortium MBA with Lufthansa, Deutsche Bank and Merck. Managers of these three companies fly to Britain for week- long chunks of learning. The consortium enables the companies to influence what is taught and how. "They're part of it," says Steve Robinson, MBA programme director. "We all work together."
When you are making you choice of school, be sure to research the market thoroughly. Visit any school you are considering and check that it is accredited by the Association of MBAs. Schools have open days. Try to attend some of them.
The Association of MBAs Guide to Business Schools 1998-99 is available from the Association of MBAs, 15 Duncan Terrace, London N1 8BZ, priced pounds 26.95 including p&p, or via www.mba.org.uk. To obtain details of the Association's loan scheme, call Nat West on 0800 200400.
WHAT IT WILL COST
ACQUIRING AN MBA costs money. The fee range is enormous, from London Business School's pounds 26,000 for a two-year programme, to Bristol Business School's pounds 5,950 for one year. (Figures are for 1998-99 - prices will go up next year, LBS's to pounds 27,000.) On top of that you have your living costs - at least pounds 6,000 a year. But help is available. The Association of MBAs runs a loans scheme through Nat West bank. You need to be a UK resident aged 18 to 40 to qualify. You can borrow up to two-thirds of your pre-course salary, plus tuition fees for each year of full-time study. Distance learning students can apply for a maximum of pounds 10,000 to cover tuition fees and study equipment.