In the past there was perhaps some justification for the negative view. Students were often enrolled immediately after graduation. Many had no work experience let alone management experience. Although they emerged from their MBA courses with management knowledge, they lacked skills.
It is now widely accepted that the MBA is not only a postgraduate degree, but should also be a post-experience qualification. Although a few institutions do not insist on prior work experience, most now specify between two and five years as a minimum entry qualification. A survey conducted by the Association of MBAs (AMBA) found that two-thirds of those on MBA courses have six or more years prior work experience. At Cranfield School of Management, MBA students range in age from 25 to 50, with an average age of 30.
There is strong international and domestic demand for MBA places. Because institutions of higher education are under pressure to generate fee income, a growing number offer MBA courses. The quality varies. Consequently an MBA on its own is not necessarily a marketable qualification any longer. It is an MBA from a "recognised" business school that counts in the jobs market.
There are two broad reasons why people take an MBA. Some want to improve their management skills, often in preparation for a general management role. Many of these are sponsored by their employer on part-time or distance learning MBA courses. Others wish to make a major career or job change and usually fund it themselves through a full-time MBA. A survey by Cranfield found that the top three reasons for studying an MBA were, in order : to acquire new skills, to improve management skills, and the desire for the qualification.
Most full-time courses used to last two years. However, fees are high, especially if living costs and lost earnings are taken into account. (Tuition fees for a one-year MBA currently average £7,000-£8,000 plus accommodation and living expenses.) The schools were under pressure to reduce the length to one year - the time taken for a master's degree in other disciplines. Most full-time courses now last 12 months. However, MBAs are more intensive than other master courses. Some people argue that there is now too little time to take in all the information, relate it to practical experience and consider how it can be applied in future work. In Europe, only the London Business School retains a 21- month course.
As yet women, who fill a fast-growing proportion of management posts, have been slow to enter MBA programmes. Overall, they take less than a quarter of course places.
How is the prospective student to choose a suitable course and institution?
At present, 32 out of the 100 UK institutions offering an MBA are accredited by the AMBA. Institutions apply for accreditation on a voluntary basis. Each is visited by a team of four to six assessors and must satisfy stringent conditions that cover a variety of areas, including the composition of the school, its autonomy, staff qualifications, investment in staff development, admission standards, the coverage of core subjects and the range of options, and how students are assessed.
Some schools that have not volunteered for accreditation may be very good. However, AMBA accreditation provides a reasonable assurance of quality for prospective students and employers.
The AMBA provides an inquiry service for those thinking of doing an MBA and handles about 1,500 letters and telephone calls each mouth. It also produces a useful MBA handbook, Guide to Business Schools, with its 11th edition published this year. This not only provides details of all UK business schools, whether accredited or not, but also of accredited schools in Europe and the United States. It also gives advice on choosing courses, applications and funding, and provides details of all courses, including those by distance learning (£19.95, including p&p in UK from AMBA, 15 Duncan Terrace, London N1 8BZ).
Most of those seeking a change of career or employer resign from work and undertake a full-time course. This may seem rash, but the fact that most of those on full-time courses pay for themselves, often borrowing substantially to do so, shows that they consider it a good investment.
Part-time courses, usually called Executive MBAS, appeal more to managers who are in employment and intend to develop their careers with their existing employers. Many are sponsored by their employers as part of their career development programme. They should not underestimate the rigour of this route. They need the positive support of both their families and employers.
Distance learning courses also attract those in employment, some being sponsored but many self-financed. These may appeal especially to those who eventually hope to change career or employer but cannot afford to give up their jobs and finance themselves through a full-time course.
Michael Azaria, director of the Career Management Centre at the London Business School, advises those choosing a school to look at its international image with recruiters, the importance it gives to research and its relevance to business, and the diversity of the student body. He says the students should be "diverse in work experience, nationalities and perspective" and points out that MBA students learn a lot from each other.
He says that the major employers of MBAs are multinational companies or British companies with extensive operations overseas, and that they do not want "narrowly minded Brits or Americans". He also stressed that they "need people who have a high level of proficiency in languages other than English - especially German, French and Mandarin".
Perhaps the most convincing evidence of the value of MBAs for individuals comes from the Cranfield school survey. It reported that 97.3 per cent answered that, with hindsight, they would study for an MBA and that 83.2 per cent were satisfied or very satisfied with their career progress since their MBA.