How a new master fits into the frame: Many managers are not prepared for the return of their MBA students. Paul Gosling reports

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The Independent Online
SPONSORED MBA students are sometimes forgotten about by their employers, according to Chris Skelcher, director of part-time MBAs at Birmingham University.

'There may be problems when students return to their employers. What is important is to involve the employer in the student's project and ensure that they are talking to each other,' he said.

David Stoker, MBA director at Durham University, agreed: 'Companies remember the person from perhaps 12 months earlier. They don't recognise that they have new abilities, new perspectives, new horizons. If employers want to realise their investment - which can be pounds 30,000 to pounds 40,000 - then there should be discussion, even before the MBA is finished, on where the person is to fit back in.'

The danger is that after pursuing full-time study a person can return to work a 'square peg in a round hole'. This is one reason for the increasing popularity of part-time MBAs where the link between work and study is much greater.

'A part-time course should be based very heavily on their work situation, which is more relevant to the student. And the organisational pay-back of a part-time course is more immediate; it is a more interactive process,' Mr Stoker said.

Part-time students can also have problems, however, according to Mike Sweeney, a former director of part-time MBAs at Cranfield School of Management. 'There is a language and a concept gap between students and employers or managers.' This becomes less of an issue in the second year, Mr Sweeney said, as employers begin to benefit from the effects of the MBA studies.

There are different problems with full-time students. 'Some organisations don't understand what an MBA is. You can tell whether they understand from where they put the graduate. If they try them out by placing them as roving general managers, they understand. Others put them in less general roles, in functional posts, where students may have less impact - and then there is the highest risk that they will move on,' Mr Sweeney said.

'Employees and employers moving apart from each other during a full- time MBA course is a common failing,' said Simon Newton, deputy director of the Open University, which provides distance learning tuition. 'That is why the CBI and others are ambivalent about MBAs. Students want to come back and transform their workplace; they get frustrated, then they leave.'

Employers have been voting with their purses, and the move from full- time to part-time MBAs has been dramatic. Durham University estimates that where 90 per cent of full- time MBAs in the 1970s were sponsored, the figure is now less than 15 per cent. However, more than 90 per cent of part-time MBAs are now sponsored. 'I think the problem has resolved itself by employers seeing the advantages of part-time MBAs,' Mr Stoker said.

But the CBI is doubtful that MBAs are of much use at all, preferring shorter, and less theoretical, courses. MBAs tailored for the needs of specific companies do find favour, however. These ensure that the course is related to the employer's needs and at the same time are less likely to take the graduate to another company.

Howard Davies, director-general of the CBI, said in a recent speech at Aston University that MBA graduates tend to be more promiscuous in changing their jobs. He quoted a survey which showed that two out of three sponsored MBA students moved on to a different company within 10 years.

Tailored MBAs can only be a solution for the largest employers, and are likely to be less attractive to students. They also fail to widen the perspectives of participants, according to Andrew Dyson, director of MBA administration at Manchester Business School. 'Students lose the breadth of contact, especially in courses such as ours where they work in problem-solving groups of people with different experiences.'

Full-time as well as part-time MBAs should be of benefit to employers, if organised properly, according to Mr Stoker. He recommends that a student's dissertation should be based on or around the sponsoring company or its sector, and that the student may go back into the company for the dissertation. 'There should also be a re-introduction interview to reconcile differences and dissonances. I also think the employer and the MBA team should keep in contact,' he added.

Birmingham University insists that employers provide mentors, and the approach works, according to MBA graduate Andrea Hill, principal assistant in strategy planning for Thurrock council. 'It is a pre- requisite for acceptance on the course, to ensure that the employer does benefit. The first thing I had to do was put in a report on my project. At the end of the course I had to submit a report saying whether the project had succeeded or failed.

'My project was to change the council's budget to a policy-driven system. I was given a team of the chief executive, deputy chief executive, finance director and top accountants so that the authority was getting a new system while my colleagues were given a different perspective. My mentor was my departmental head, who was outside this process. It helped us all to understand we were achieving something.'

It seems clear that for an MBA to work to the benefit of all parties, potential conflicts need to be recognised in advance, and employers should be fully involved in their employee's course.

One place where such tensions won't arise is with the corporate responsibility option on Manchester Business School's course - none of its British students is sponsored.