MBA's: Half a century of 'Cranfield'

The 'essentially practical' courses of Cranfield University School of Management are valued by all those who employ MBA graduates. Philip Schofield looks at what makes the programme unique
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The Independent Online
There are no formal rankings of British MBA programmes. But that provided by Cranfield University School of Management, usually known simply as "Cranfield", is widely recognised as being among Europe's half-dozen best. How has it earned this reputation?

Cranfield, Britain's third oldest business school, was formally established in 1967. However, its parent body, primarily a postgraduate university specialising in science and technology, has provided management education for 50 years and has always had strong links with business and industry.

The Cranfield MBA can be taken full-time over one year or part-time over two. Both routes follow an identical core syllabus of 12 subjects in the first half of the programme. Students then choose to specialise by means of a wide choice of elective courses.

Martyn Jones, director of the full-time MBA, says the programme is "quintessentially practical", and is concerned with what influences, and happens in, the world of work, whereas many other MBAs are based on "academic social science".

Central to the quality of the programme is the calibre of the faculty. There are some 90 full-time members, as well as many visiting professors and fellows from around the world. Most had practical management experience in industry, business or in public service before joining academe. They are typified by Professor Leo Murray, who has been director of the business school for 13 years. Before joining Cranfield he worked for British Petroleum, Courtaulds, management consultants AT Kearney, and Rothmans.

Teaching quality has been graded "excellent", the highest rating of the Higher Education Funding Council.

The quality of the MBA programme also depends on how well it can stay at the forefront of management knowledge. To this end, the school works in partnership with industry, commerce and the public sector to carry out research of practical value to business, which can then be translated into the teaching programmes. Teaching and consultancy experience contribute to new research initiatives.

The quality of the school's research has been assessed by the HEFC at "4", which it defines as "research of national excellence in virtually all sub-areas of activity, possibly showing some evidence of international excellence, or to international level in some and at least in national level in a majority".

The calibre of the student body is also important to the quality of the programme. Apart from having an honours degree or an equivalent professional qualification, successful candidates must have at least three years' quality work experience, although those on the part-time, "executive" MBA have an average of eight. Finally candidates must sit the notoriously tough Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT). Most business schools demand a score of 550-600 out of a possible 800. Cranfield's entrants average 620.

An "orientation week" before the start of the programme introduces students to some intensive learning activities. This is run, uniquely, by students from the previous programme, and seeks to foster both a sense of community and a culture that encourages lifelong learning and development.

When students start the four-term programme they are divided into streams of around 50 people, subdivided into learning groups of six or seven. Martyn Jones initially builds his first-term groups to provide a balanced mix of specialism - marketing, finance and so on. There are no subject exemptions, so even qualified professionals must undertake their own specialism: everyone is part of a learning team, and must help their team colleagues. The school also wants students with expert knowledge to contribute to the debate.

In the second term, groups are re-formed to include a mix of personalities. After all, at work, people must collaborate with all types, including those they may dislike. The volume of work given to these teams is more than any individual can cope with, so they have to trust other members of their team, and be able to delegate tasks to them. This is an important part of personal development. In the subsequent terms there is a little more emphasis on developing individual skills, though not to the exclusion of teamwork.

Although the course is the same for full- and part-time students, their motives for taking the programme tend to differ. Nine out of ten of those on the full-time programme have given up their jobs, and pay their own fees and subsistence from savings and loans. Many want to move to a new field; others to move from a specialist management role into general management.

For example, Sara Holmes, a current student, was an independent television producer for eight years. She wanted to move into broadcasting administration, but could see no way of doing so without an MBA. Amrit Mehta, an Indian with four years' sales and marketing experience in the Middle East, wants to enter general management.

Do students who finance themselves think the investment is worthwhile? Martin Dalgleish, from Australia, calculates that his one-year MBA has cost him pounds 75,000 in fees, fares, subsistence and lost earnings. But he is confident that he will recoup his investment in extra earnings within three years. Money is not the only factor. Sara Holmes says that her investment will have been justified if she can move into a new career at the same salary, although she expects to get more.

On the other hand, most part-time students are sponsored by their employer, 80 per cent of them as part of a management development programme, and expect to move from a specialist role into general management. Cranfield aims to develop a three-way partnership between the student, the school and the sponsoring employer. This is formalised in a framework "learning contract" which is agreed between the three partners at the start of the programme. It covers the objectives of the student and his or her sponsor - the support to be provided by the school and the employer - and the career development objectives.

Finally, Martyn Jones reminds employers that after completing the course "their employees have gone through a developmental process. They cannot bring a person back to an unchanged job".

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