MBA Courses: Learning from a distance

The new generation of MBAs offers students a flexible approach. Philip Schofield reports
Only one in five of those who graduated with an MBA last year did a full-time course. The majority studied either part-time or by distance learning.

The growth in popularity of part-time and distance MBAs in the past decade stems from a realisation that an MBA is valuable only if it is taken after a few years' management experience. The days when a graduate went straight on to an MBA course and came out with lots of theory, no experience and inflated expectations are over. An MBA is as much a post-experience as a post-graduate qualification.

This means that it needs to be taken mid-career. According to a survey carried out by Hay Management Consultants for the Association of MBAs (Amba) the average MBA student has eight years' relevant experience. Most managers are unable or unwilling to interrupt their careers by taking a year out to do a full-time course.

Employers recognise MBAs as a valuable part of the career development of potential high flyers, but they also find it impractical to release managers for a year to study full-time. The development of part-time and distance learning courses meets the needs of managers and employers.

Because employers see MBA courses as a good investment,most are willing to support students on part-time and distance learning courses. According to Amba, more than half of MBA students who were employed had their fees paid by their employer. Many had other forms of support, including contributions towards costs and time off. Support is particularly strong for courses with a high reputation among employers. For example, 90 per cent of those on the evening MBA at Warwick Business School are sponsored by employers.

Business schools have responded to employer needs by providing a huge variety of courses. Some are tailored to the needs of particular industries, employers or organisations. Some focus on specific areas such as accounting and finance, engineering, marketing or project management. Indeed, it is becoming unrealistic to talk of an MBA as a single entity. Some programmes, which one institution might offer as an MBA, might be offered as an MA in management at another. Manchester University Business School's international master's programme in management is one example.

Teaching methods also vary. Some schools use a primarily academic approach based on case studies, others use problems in their students' organisations as the basis for project work. The lattergives employers some useful free consultancy. There is also a lot of variation in the way courses are structured and timetabled.

Part-time courses usually vary from two to three-and-a-half years. Some, however, like the Edinburgh Business School at Heriot-Watt University, give the option of two, three or four-year courses. Modular programmes (block release courses for managers) last from two to five years. Distance learning programmes vary from a fixed two years at Kingston Business School to an optional seven years at Heriot-Watt.

Part-time courses can involve varying patterns of day-release, weekend and evening on-campus attendance combined with periods of home study. Modular courses involve attending full-time blocks of a week or more for several blocks.

For example, in the first 24 months of the London Business School's 30- month executive MBA course, students attend for a full-week block at the start of each term, plus alternate Fridays. Henley's two-year part-time MBA involves four one-week residential sessions and several three-day workshops, while the one-year modular MBA involves four four-week residential modules. The part-time evening MBA at Warwick involves two three-hour evening classes a week during term-time over three years. Its modular MBA involves 13 one-week residential modules, spread over three years. Although part-time courses allow managers to combine study and work, there is inevitably some interference with the job. Managers need the support of their immediate superior and peers.

Even distance learning courses can require some employer support because most involvecompulsory attendances on campus. For example, the Open Business School has compulsory residential schools from two days to a week as well as several group tutorials, which are held in regional centres.

Strathclyde Graduate Business School has five mandatory weekend schools, and Warwick Business School has three compulsory eight-day September seminars.

Although it can be argued that these attendances could be organised in students' own time, managers often need to be in a specific place at a specific time.

For those unable to attend a campus, Heriot Watt has a distance learning course. This requires no live teaching or exchanges of correspondence, and has more than 12,000 students in 90 countries. This involves nine structured learning modules including two electives. Each is followed by an exam taken in June or December at one of 250 centres world-wide. Students work at their own pace, taking exams when they feel ready. However, they must complete the course within seven years.

It is sometimes assumed that part-time and distance learning MBAs are inferior to full time. This is not so. Amba runs a widely respected voluntary inspection and accreditation scheme that sets rigorous standards. Part- time courses at 23 of Britain's 109 business schools are currently Amba accredited, as are five distance learning courses.

If part-time and distance learning courses were not available, it seems unlikely that the MBA could have survived and earned its reputation as the premier management development programme.

Moreover, many argue that a course that enables students to put their learning into practice at work during their MBA studies is even more valuable than a full-time programme of intensive academic study.