Master classes

Want an MBA? There are many routes, writes Philip Schofield production

The first Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree was issued at the Harvard Business School in 1910. For the next half-century the MBA remained confined to North America, but growing numbers of would- be general managers from around the world made the two-year pilgrimage to obtain what had become a coveted qualification.

Europe's first MBA course was introduced at University College Dublin in 1964, followed by the London and Manchester business schools a year later. The development of the European Union was a catalyst for the setting up of business schools in Western Europe, which subsequently started to award their own MBAs. MBA programmes have since spread through East Europe, Asia and Australasia.

Thousands of managers, however, prefer to study for an MBA abroad, and Britain is the top provider although many Britons continue to study in the USA.

Are there any advantages in taking an MBA overseas? Certainly the increasing globalisation of business makes international experience valuable for many managers. Many Asian managers also study at British and US business schools because some of their local schools have yet to achieve an equivalent standard.

British managers who expect to do business in the US, or work for American- owned companies, will find an American MBA invaluable in introducing them to the US business culture. Moreover, an MBA from a top US school carries far greater credibility in business circles there than one from elsewhere. Executives doing business in Asia will also find American MBAs the most highly rated. Only the European Institute of Business Administration (Insead) in Fontainebleau and the London Business School are rated among the top 10 by Asian businessmen.

However, there is a down side to most American MBAs. The American MBA was designed as a two-year academic programme for recent graduates. This still applies to most full-time programmes. They aim to educate rather than develop managers. Although many claim to be international, they are primarily designed to teach the future managers of US companies while giving them a global perspective.

On average, European MBA students are five years older and have several years' management experience. All reputable European business schools expect students to have such experience. This enables then to make more use of seminars, workshops and discussion, which draws on that experience. They also make greater use of action learning.

Action learning is concerned with studying real-life work problems. Small teams work on organisation-based projects with specific learning objectives. Solving real-life problems and learning go together. Instead of academic staff providing case studies and simulations, students bring their own case studies from sponsoring employers.

European programmes are usually shorter than those in North America. One-year full-time courses have become the norm in Britain. Only London (21 months) and Manchester (18 months) offer longer courses. Other European MBAs vary from 10 months (Insead) to two years (Esade in Barcelona).

Relatively few managers in mid-career can leave their job for a year or more. Consequently most British MBA students now study on part-time courses or by distance learning.

American MBAs take longer and are more costly, especially taking living costs and fares into account. However, the Fulbright Commission has just started co-sponsoring up to 10 British MBA students a year at US business schools. (Prospective students should write to the commission in early summer at 62 Doughty Street, London WC1N 2LS, or visit its stand at the MBA Fair in London's Business Design Centre on 29-30 January).

Those with solely domestic interests are probably best off studying in the UK. Managers who expect to work in mainland Europe could benefit from studying there. Programmes tend to be the most international of all, although the emphasis is usually on the European Union states. Some schools, like Insead and the London Business School, have a multinational faculty and student body where no single culture dominates.

Other business schools operate in several centres. For example, the Paris- based European School of Management (EAP) also has a presence in Berlin, Madrid and Oxford. Some schools have formed partnerships that offer multi- centre MBAs. Strathclyde students can, for example, do six months' study in Glasgow and another six months with Groupe ESC Toulouse working in French.

A unique new part-time programme for senior managers is now being run by Lancaster Business School, Insead, Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo, the Indian School of Management in Bangalore, and McGill University in Montreal. The programme includes two weeks' study at each school.

Although American MBAs are currently highly regarded in Asia, they give little feeling for the local business culture. Those wishing to do business in Asia and on the Pacific Rim would do better to study at one of the excellent business schools in Australia or New Zealand which now see this region as home territory. There are other business schools in the region, but they have yet to establish a world-class reputation.

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