"Like cola drink, you can find an MBA programme almost anywhere," says Ray Wild, principal of Henley Management College. "But unlike cola, this product differs considerably from place to place." Length of course may depend on which country you are in. The majority of MBA programmes offered - 55 percent - are in America; followed by the United Kingdom with 20 per cent.
Typically, US MBAs last almost two years, against a year in much of Europe. But, whereas good European schools will expect you to have worked for three years, only limited business experience is required in America.
On the face of it, MBA programmes look similar. The course content is much the same - but some are much more expensive. The British market offers a number of pricey MBAs at the top end: the London Business School's two-year full-time MBA costs pounds 27,000 this autumn; and Cranfield and Warwick have recently jacked up fees for their one-year MBA to pounds 18,500 (including laptop) and pounds 17,000 respectively.
So what exactly are you paying for? "You're buying into this elite group or brand for the rest of your life," answers Amanda Brook, external relations manager at Bath's School of Management, which offers value for money with a full-time, one-year MBA at pounds 12,250.
These are serious sums of money, made even more serious as full-time students have to give up their jobs to do the course and find living expenses as well. Unless you have a rich grandma, or plan a career in international consulting - and so are prepared to go into debt - you are bound to think hard before shelling out such large sums.
A cheaper option is to undertake a part-time, modular or distance-learning MBA. This allows you to go on earning while paying your way. The hard grind is likely to wreck your social life, but will also reduce the financial burden, particularly if you manage also to obtain financial help from your employer - it's always worth asking.
One reason why Warwick's distance learning programme is so sought-after is it offers good value for money - pounds 8,325, from this autumn. For that you get a rated MBA, containing plenty of statistics and finance, from an elite school.
Your choice of programme will also be affected by your motives for doing an MBA, so it's advisable to be clear about these from the start. To obtain a better job or to give your career a lift, you may need a prestigious "brand". If, however, you simply want to hone your expertise in a couple of areas and stay with the same employer, you may be better off at your local university.
"If you're going into a certain career, particularly consulting, it's very important to get the right brand name, otherwise you'll never get your foot in the door," says Peter Calladine, of the Association of MBAs (AMBA). "If you're interested in international consultancy, you should probably consider only LBS in London, Insead in France, IMD in Switzerland and some top US schools." The top UK management consultants, investment banks and accountants take students from a wider pool, including the likes of Warwick, Henley and Strathclyde.
Calladine recommends potential students choose programmes accredited by the Association of MBAs, to avoid making a bad decision. But limiting your choice to accredited schools can also mean narrowing your options drastically, as there are only 33 in the UK.
Many MBA applicants are constrained, too, by a combination of money and geography. If you want to study at an AMBA accredited school in London you'll be limited to the LBS, which may be out of your price range, then Imperial College Management School and City University Business School, both of which will be charging pounds 15,000 for their one-year, full-time MBAs this autumn. Your other options are Kingston, Middlesex and Westminster.
Standards are rising. "We're 20 per cent up on applicants," says David Norburn, director of Imperial's school. "And there's been a sea-change in the quality. It is significantly up." At City business school, Carol Vielba, director of MBA programmes, says the school went for much tougher admissions standards this year - expecting a smaller intake. But that didn't happen. Westminster offers a one-year general MBA for pounds 8,450. But most students go for the part-time MBA programme lasting two years and costing pounds 3,850 a year.
In a few years, another player will enter the field. The London School of Economics - that doesn't run an MBA course but has a formidable reputation in economics - has joined forces with four elite US universities to offer a distance-learning MBA on the Internet.
The universities will devise the academic content (with aspects of international trade and European business from the LSE) and it'll be provided by Unext.com. "Unext will develop a very high quality interactive experience for students," says Peter Hirst, head of Enterprise LSE, the school's consultancy and trading company.
And it is worth remembering that one-in-four UK MBA students study via the Open University Business School's pioneering distance-learning courses, using various modules addressing various areas of expertise, and building up to a full, AMBA-accredited MBA. The school uses the Internet for moderated conferencing (like chat rooms) and e-mail, and is developing fully Internet-based courses.
Modules cost pounds 800-1,400, while a complete MBA would run to about pounds 7,000 - including face-to-face, usually compulsory, four-day residential schools all over the country.
The Association of MBAs' `Guide to Business Schools' is available from the Association of MBAs, 15 Duncan Terrace, London N1 8BZ, at pounds 26.95Reuse content