The Open secret

Popular with both students and employers, the Open University Business School has an excellent track record for MBAs, says Philip Schofield
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The Independent Online
Europe's largest business school saw 1,000 of its MBA students successfully pass their final exams last year. The Open University Business School (OUBS), founded in 1983 and offering highly respected MBAs since 1989, has proved to be an outstanding success story.

OUBS has around 20,000 students in 26 countries, about 4,500 of whom are currently studying for an MBA. It has a permanent staff of 164 as well as 750 part-time tutors throughout Europe. Students are found through the European Union and Eastern Europe as well as in Singapore, Ethiopia and Eritrea. Another 1,200 people currently follow OUBS courses in association with the Open Learning Institute in the highly competitive MBA market in Hong Kong. This year should also see students in India and South Africa.

The school is popular not only with its students but also with employers. Around 4,000 organisations sponsor their employees each year, and more than 13,000 have done so since OUBS courses began.

The school is a faculty within the Open University and based at the OU's headquarters at Milton Keynes. Because the OUBS receives no government funding, it is financially independent. Last year it generated revenues of more than pounds 20m - including pounds 3m in overseas earnings. It has just been awarded the Queen's Award for Exports.

The statistics, although impressive, tell only half the story. The quality of teaching has been judged "excellent" in the quality assessment review carried out by the Higher Education Funding Council (HEFC). Among the main elements of excellence noted were the quality of teaching materials, the extensive academic support provided for students, and the high retention and completion rates. Although about 110 institutions now offer MBAs in Britain, the OUBS is also one of only 33 to run courses accredited by the Association of MBAs.

There is much debate in academe as to whether or not research excellence contributes to teaching excellence. Certainly there are some highly rated business schools which do not rate particularly well in the HEFC research assessments.

Research at OUBS has until recently not had a high priority. This is hardly surprising given the need rapidly to build a new suite of courses over the past ten years, and the self-funding nature of the school.

OUBS did not enter any of the HEFC's Research Assessment Exercises until late last year, when it was graded a creditable 3A. This immediately put it into the top half of all UK business schools. The rating of "3" indicates research equating to national excellence in a majority of areas, or to international level in some. The "A" indicates that 95 to 100 per cent of the school's staff were included in the research submission. Moreover, since this assessment, the school has attracted some major new research grants and recruited five full-time research fellows.

There are two main routes on to an MBA course at the school. Those aged 27 or more with a UK honours degree or professional qualification and several years' middle- or senior-management experience can join the "fast track" route. This has three elements: a Foundations of Senior Management programme, a compulsory course on strategy, and three electives from a choice of eight. Three-quarters of MBA students join by this route.

Those unable to meet the fast-track criteria can enter the MBA programme via a diploma programme. The diploma course is in two parts: the Professional Certificate in Management, then the Professional Diploma in Management.

There are four ways into the certificate. There is a single 11-month course - "The Capable Manager" - or a more flexible modular programme of three six-month courses. There is also a single course for health services managers or a modular course for the voluntary sector. The diploma offers two options: a generic programme of two six-month courses or an 11-month course for managers in health and social services.

A major criticism of distance-learning business schools has been that students are isolated from one another and have too little tutor contact. Much of the benefit of an MBA programme is derived from being able to draw on the work experience of fellow students and fron collaborating on team projects.

The OUBS uses a variety of systems to overcome the problem of isolation. It ensures face-to-face contact with other students through short but mandatory residential schools, holds regular tutorials at regional centres and encourages the formation of student groups. Computer conferencing is also widely used on the school's courses and is an integral part of the MBA programme. There is also a high level of personal tutorial and counselling support throughout the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland and many parts of continental Europe.

Two-thirds of the school's students are sponsored by their employers, around half of whom ask for sponsorship, the other half being told, "We will sponsor you." The school has acquired an excellent reputation among employers, who use it to develop their managers without taking them off the job.

Whitbread even has its own quality brochure on the school's courses and sponsors 300 of its managers a year on its programmes. The school claims that 60 of the UK's top 100 companies now use the OUBS programmes to develop their managers and that 13,000 organisations have sponsored students through its programmes.

The OUBS is now looking to new developments. The entire MBA programme is being completely rewritten. It is to introduce an undergraduate Business Studies course in 1999, and it is looking at producing learning materials for professional and technical staff who are not in conventional management roles.

It is also looking at ways to make even greater use of communications technology and is running a number of pilot projects. Work is being undertaken to find the optimum way of using CD-ROMs in management development. A management encyclopaedia is also being developed on CD-ROM.

Finally, following some of its corporate clients such as IBM, the OUBS will launch itself in the United States later this year. For a British business school to take its MBA programme courses to the US marks a real coming of age.

AMBA Fair floorplan

WATERLOO ROOM

1 Ashridge Management College

2 Aston Business School

3 City University Business School

4 Birmingham Business School, University of Birmingham

5 Cambridge University, The Judge Institute of Management Studies

6 Bristol Business School

7 University of Bradford Management Centre

8 University of Bath, School of Management

ST JAMES 2

26 INSEAD (France)

27 Lancaster University Management School

28 Kingston Business School

29 HEC School of Management, ISA (France)

TRAFALGAR 1

30 Manchester Business School

31 Newcastle School of Management

32 University of Nottingham School of Management and Finance

TRAFALGAR 2

33 Nijenrode University (Netherlands)

34 London Business School

35 Leeds University Business School

36 Middlesex University Business School

BURTON ROOM

37 University of Navarra, IESE

(Spain)

38 NIMBAS Graduate School of Management (Netherlands)

39 Open University Business School

40 Rotterdam School of Management (Netherlands)

41 IEP, Sciences Po (France)

42 Strathclyde Graduate Business School

43 The Fulbright Commission

44 Warwick Business School

45 University of Westminster

NASH ROOM

9 Henley Management College

10 Edinburgh Business School, Heriot Watt University

11 The Independent

12 EAP European School of Management (Paris/Madrid/Berlin/Oxfor)

13 Edinburgh University Management School

14 NatWest Bank PLC

15 ESADE (Spain)

16 ENPC (France)

17 Instituto de Empresa (Spain)

18 Imperial College Management School

19 Durham University Business School

20 Howard Multimedia

21 Association of MBAs

22 Leicester Business School, De Montfort University

23 Cranfield School of Management

24 Barclays Bank PLC

25 IMD International (Switzerland)

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