Courses you can take away

You don't have to attend lectures to gain an MBA. Philip Schofield looks at long-distance learning
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The Independent Online
MANAGERS who wish to reinforce their experience and skills by taking a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree can find it difficult to do so. Most are reluctant to interrupt their career unless they plan an early change of direction or company. Moreover, most employers are reluctant to release managers for a year or more while they attend a full- time course.

The problem has been partially solved by part-time MBAs, which allow managers to continue working while studying. But these still need the positive support of the employer because they usually involve attending college regularly during the daytime and carrying out projects at work. Fortunately, many companies see an MBA as a valuable part of career development and often sponsor managers through part-time courses.

However, even a part-time course can be impractical for the many managers who live some distance from a business school, who work irregular hours, who travel a lot, or who have employers unwilling to support their studies. For these people, a distance-learning MBA programme is the answer.

The belief that distance-learning is inferior to courses taught directly on campus was once widespread. However, largely thanks to the Open University, it is now generally accepted that excellent academic standards can be achieved away from the lecture theatre.

There are now more than 90 business schools in the UK, 15 offering distance- learning MBAs. Because standards of quality vary, the Association of MBAs (AMBA) thoroughly assesses courses every seven years and accredits those which satisfy specific criteria. It currently accredits courses at 32 institutions, including five distance-learning courses - at Henley Management College and the business schools at Durham, Strathclyde, Warwick and the Open Universities. The scheme is voluntary, and some schools which have not sought accreditation may be very good. However, the AMBA light provides employers and students with a valuable assurance of quality.

The Higher Education Funding Councils also assess the quality of teaching on university courses. Those providing open- learning programmes rate just as highly as those only offering full and part-time MBAs. For example, the business schools of Strathclyde, Warwick and the Open Universities have been rated "excellent" - the HEFCs' highest assessment.

One benefit of taking an MBA is the opportunity it gives to study and share experiences with managers from a wide range of organisations and countries. Distance learning limits these opportunities. However, students do usually come together for residential seminars. At Warwick there are three compulsory eight-day "September Seminars" and a programme of optional induction days, weekend seminars and local study groups. Strathclyde features five compulsory weekend schools as well as the option to join students on the part-time MBA for one- week classes. Henley offers regular workshops and a residential week at Henley or an Associate centre as optional extras. The Open Business School has compulsory residential schools lasting from two days to a week, as well as a number of regionally organised group tutorials. The business schools usually grant exemptions from attending these in cases of extreme difficulty

In some cases, computers are used to link up students. As PCs are an essential management tool, business schools encourage if not require their use.

Henley claims a "unique computer communication system [which] puts all course members 'on-line' to a global learning network, enabling them to access data, exchange information and take part in electronic conferencing". The Open University has a computer conferencing system "which allows students to communicate with one another, with tutors and with guest subject experts".

Distance-learning students may have limited communication with one another, but they gain in other ways. Henley believes the traditional full-time MBA is too classroom-based and that there is not enough practical interaction. This view is shared by John Ross, distance-learning programme manager at Durham Business School, who describes a full-time MBA as "a year in the glass cocoon". Most distance- learning students, like those on part- time courses, remain at work. This means that they can put theory into practice in the workplace, carrying out projects and testing the ideas and techniques to which they are exposed. They can also discuss what they are learning with their management colleagues.

No one should underestimate the rigours of doing an MBA by distance learning. A course typically takes around three years to complete based on an average of 10 to 12 hours study a week. In addition there may be weekend schools, week-long seminars, tutorials, workshops or other special events. For most students, all this comes on top of a full-time management job, now rarely restricted to the hours of nine to five. Moreover, managers typically start distance MBAs in their early to mid-30s, when many have started families. The pressures are considerable and students need the support of both their employers and their families.

Courses are not cheap. AMBA-accredited programmes cost from pounds 5,740 at Durham - plus about pounds 450 for accommodation on residential seminars (shortly due to increase by about 5 per cent) - to pounds 7,725 including residential accommodation at the Open Business School.

Many students are sponsored by their employers, while others pay for themselves. The AMBA has campaigned for several years for MBA tuition fees to be tax deductible. Although fees paid by employers are deductible, and the principle for fees paid by individuals has been conceded by the Inland Revenue, a successful tax claim needs persistence. Many reports have criticised the standards of British management, and the Government claims it is keen to remedy this failing. It could demonstrate this commitment by persuading the taxman that fees on accredited or otherwise approved MBA courses should be automatically tax deductible.

Is all the effort worthwhile? An AMBA survey shows that within 18 months of completing an MBA, half the students were promoted and half of those by more than one step up. It also shows that, on average, they earn 16.5 per cent more in real terms than they might have expected had they not taken an MBA. Finally, in an age when the job for life has gone, it is comforting to have a qualification as portable as an accredited MBA.

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