MBA: Something academic for the weekend

Studying while continuing to work is the preferred option for MBA students aiming to stay ahead of the competition
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The Independent Online


Everywhere you look on the MBA landscape, there's a common theme: the executive MBA is surging ahead. The popularity of studying while continuing work (at a senior level) grows steadily, while the full-time and other models consolidate, after a decline since the turn of the century.

A recent marketing and admissions forum organised by the Association of MBAs (AMBA) heard that, over the last four years, applications for places on executive courses had held up strongly, while those to all other types of course had dropped sharply. Although, in the last 12 months the full-time figure has perked up.

Perhaps more significantly, delegates saw survey results showing executive MBA graduates express far higher levels of satisfaction with their course and where it takes them, than their full-time counterparts. Most academics are convinced the trend will continue.

"The popularity of the executive MBA is definitely going to increase," says Ebrahim Mohamed, director of the executive MBA programme at Imperial College's Tanaka Business School in London.

He puts this down to two factors: first, growing economic stability, decreasing the boom-bust effect that led large numbers of people to use a redundancy period to study full time; and second, he's convinced there are sound reasons for studying and working in parallel, enabling students to apply theory learnt in the classroom in the workplace.

As a result of this conviction, Tanaka have just doubled their number of executive students by opening a second programme, where students come to Imperial for one long weekend a month, in parallel to the established programme, whose participants attend for one Friday a fortnight, plus some longer blocks.

The initial expectation was for a cohort of about 30, but 58 students started the inaugural course in April, six of whom live and work outside the UK, one from as far away as Oman.

This highlights a related growth area in the market, according to Mohamed.

"We think there's potential for more people coming from further afield," he explains, "and the weekend study mode makes this much more practical for busy executives."

As you'd expect, Tanaka's weekend MBA also exploits the growing capacity for e-learning - students electronically receiving and working on core material, before they attend each monthly module in London.

That was just one of the elements that attracted Patricia Melgarejo, a 28-year-old marketing executive for a software company producing operating systems for the higher end of the mobile phone market.

"The telecommunications market is very dynamic at the moment," she says, "and I wouldn't want to be out of it for a full year."

Melgarejo finds the weekend arrangement complements the rest of her working life.

"I use my own workplace as a case study for what I've been learning about. That is good for the company and good for me as a student."

Also experiencing expansion of its executive programme is Cranfield School of Management, where the executive MBA's cohort of 30 students is well up on last year, and, according to the programme director, Graham Clark, there's every chance of starting a second stream next year.

Clark thinks the constant interaction of learning at Cranfield and work responsibilities at the office makes the practical elements more valuable than on a full-time MBA, where the project can be "tacked on at the end of the year".

He believes the executive market will keep growing, as long as schools stay alive to future students' most suitable methods of studying, given the ever-changing models in the working world.

"I think we have to be smarter in terms of delivery mechanism, making more use of technology to recognise that there are always more ways of learning."

The visibility of the market is due to be further sharpened later this year when AMBA bring out new accreditation criteria for executive MBAs, partly to address confusion in some circles about the difference between executive MBAs and part-time or distance-learning MBAs.

The confusion exists because of the inherent part-time nature of all executive MBAs, given that participants are remaining in their posts while they study.

However, AMBA want to ensure that an MBA can only call itself executive if its admission criteria insist that students have a minimum of 10 years work experience and are already working at a senior level.

This clarity should ensure the executive MBA strengthens its status in an upmarket niche within the wider and well-established overall MBA brand.