The MBA Fair 1994: Co-operation is the key to success: Some less well-known institutions are benefiting from the trend to provide tailored programmes for companies

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NOW that all but the sleepiest of companies seem to have accepted the need for executive training and development, the Master of Business Administration, or MBA, must be a sure- fire winner. Right? Well, up to a point.

The business schools are certainly a lot more optimistic than they were about two years ago, when the depths of the recession caused a downturn in interest. Acknowledging that last year saw a fall in applications of 10 per cent, Roger McCormick, director-general of the Association of MBAs, said the 1994-95 academic year would bring 'a resumption of more realistic growth'. With the UK output of MBAs increasing at an annual compound rate of 18 per cent since 1990, there had to be a pause.

Much of the UK's growth has come through the proliferation in courses - up to nearly 100 from a mere handful in the mid-1960s. But these more stable times are producing a discernment among both employers and would-be students.

Although well-established, well-regarded institutions, such as London Business School, claim their application figures for the coming year are ahead of expectations, it is not just the big names that stand to benefit. With greater interest in management education showing signs of producing greater sophistication, companies are looking increasingly closely at the institutions providing MBAs.

It is not just a question of - as a recent survey among alumni of Warwick Business School found - asking 'an MBA from where?', but also of discovering which courses suit their particular needs. Consequently, although other schools may have higher profiles, some of the less well-known institutions are benefiting from the growing trend to provide tailored programmes for companies.

For example, Durham University Business School has a particularly good reputation in the field of small and growing businesses. As a result, National Westminster Bank is using it to train managers who are particularly exposed to this type of business.

At Bradford University's Management Centre the idea has been taken further. It has just started to provide the first in-house MBA for the BBC and is about to do a similar project for Ford. Professor David Weir, the centre's director, says this success is largely a result of its presence in 'a place where people don't want to come to'. Likening the school to Japanese industry - where strenuous efforts to overcome a second- class image helped it become a world-beater - he said: 'We're working hard, listening to what customers say, and lo and behold we get first-class business.'

Much has been made in recent years of business schools following the companies they are supposed to be providing with future managers by taking a more international approach. And it is true that most schools worth attending have links of various kinds with counterparts in mainland Europe and beyond. But there have been accusations that some have tried to make a virtue of the international make-up of their MBA classes when in fact it results from a shortage of suitably qualified home applicants.

Of perhaps greater importance is the move towards more co-operation with companies. Business schools attached to former polytechnics have long travelled down this route through the part-time MBAs, which enable working managers to obtain the qualification by studying at night or weekends.

Indeed, Europe as a whole and Britain in particular seem to be taking a lead in this arena. It is generally felt that US business schools - until recently considered THE ones to attend if you could afford it - have been slower to respond to the demand for courses that are more in line with corporate needs if not actually designed with one company in mind.

As a result, European observers are not surprised by the trend among US companies, such as Motorola, General Electric and McDonald's, to set up their own universities. They see it as a sign that US businesses do not expect to receive the practical assistance they need from schools that still make a great play of their academic credentials.

Moreover, the radical review of the curriculum taking place at Harvard is regarded as old hat. Proposals, such as introducing smaller classes and placing greater emphasis on teamwork, were put in place in many European institutions a decade ago, they say.

There is also evidence of a growing interest in European courses from US organisations. For instance, Prof Weir says the Ford decision was made in the US. Meanwhile, Ludo Van der Heyden, dean of Insead, the Fontainebleau-based school long noted for its international approach, says it is picking up a lot of business from US companies that realise they cannot genuinely become more global by obtaining all their management training at home.

One US institution that appears to be taking a more European-style approach, however, is Northwestern University's J L Kellogg School of Management. In a similar fashion to Bradford, it has dragged itself into the front rank by nurturing its own staff.

Although not well known on this side of the Atlantic, the school outside Chicago on the shores of Lake Michigan as topped Business Week magazine's rankings of business schools since tey started in 1988.

Under Donald Jacobs, its dean for the past 19 years, it has made strenuous efforts to provide the sort of management development that companies find immediately useful at the same time as encouraging top- flight research. In particular, it has opened the James L Allen Center as a place where the academics can try out their theories on corporate executives. 'They tell us if it makes sense,' says Mr Jacobs.

Having achieved increasing levels of applications in the United States, the school is now making extra efforts to attract foreign students, particularly those from Britain.

But it is not just corporate needs that schools need to address. It as often been remarked that the MBA is a partnership between the institution providing it, the employers and the students.

While some companies have been put off sending staff on full-time MBAs because of doubts about the value of spending time and money in this way on somebody who might take what they learn elsewhere, there are signs that would-be students have found the cost a deterrent.

This concern was an important issue beind the recently announced revamp of the Manchester Business School course, according to Peter Barrar, MBA director of studies. The changes, which include a fast-track option enabling some participants to complete the programme in just over a year instead of the traditional two years, are designed to attract people who have said the combination of pounds 15,000 fees with loss of income was too high a cost to bear in uncertain times such as these.

In addition, it was becoming clear that, with business changing as rapidly as it is at te moment, two years was too long a career break for employee and company alike.

The school - which two years ago was hit by a row over future strategy - has sought to demonstrate how serious it is about answering a real need by setting up a board containing leading industrialists, such as James Ross, chief executive of Cable & Wireless.

Indeed, Professor Tony Cockerill, the school's head, summed up many of the issues surrounding the MBA by saying the programme was designed to suit individual needs, reduce costs and provide 'a broader international perspective on management issues'.

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