Down with red braces and `Wall Street'

The MBA has shed its Eighties image and widened its appeal. Helen Jones looks at the reasons for its growing popularity
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The Independent Online
Studying for an MBA is expensive and time consuming. It is not a passport to a new job. But that does not deter the growing number of people seeking the coveted letters after their names. There are 102 institutions in the UK offering Master of Business Administration courses and the number of graduates has risen dramatically - from 1,100 in 1980 to almost 7,000 last year.

What motivates people to do it? Roger McCormick, director general of the Association of MBAs, says: "MBAs are associated with red braces and money grabbing. I don't know if that was true, even in the Eighties, but research we have carried out shows money is not the motivating factor. Most people do an MBA to impress professionalism and help self-development."

But the proliferation of courses and number of people holding the qualification means an MBA has lost its air of exclusivity. "An MBA does not have the same cachet as it did five years ago," says Roly Cockman, an executive secretary of the Association of Graduate Recruiters.

Leading head-hunter Anthony Saxton of Saxton Bampflyde International says an MBA will not automatically get you a good job "unless it is from somewhere very impressive such as Harvard".

But the recent crop of MBAs appear to be realistic about what the qualification can do for them and say that while they may not have a better job or bigger salary, they now have more confidence, a wider knowledge of business affairs, a network of good contacts and an insight into how companies operate.

There may be an added, unforeseen benefit. Jane Sturges, a recent MBA graduate from Cranfield, says: "An MBA can be an upmarket, very expensive dating agency - quite a few people from Cranfield met their current partners on the course."

With a growing number of graduates has come diversity in reasons for taking the course, means of financing it and post-study benefits.

Simone Kesseler, acting managing director at Cornhill Publications, did a self-financed MBA at South Bank University on a three-year part-time course.

"I had been development director at this company for a number of years but thought I had a knowledge gap," she says. "As a woman, I felt I was being patronised when dealing with accountancy and legal matters.I wanted to operate on the same level and understand the jargon. Having an MBA has made a huge difference. It's a real confidence boost and made me realise that business and finance is mainly common-sense.

"Doing the course part-time was a real test of stamina. I sacrificed my social life, but I think it shows you are made of something if you can do it and hold down a demanding full time job. It has helped me get a promotion and gives me more power when negotiating things such as salary rises."

Andrew Collinson, a British Telecom call growth marketing manager, took a 15-month full-time course at Warwick University, paid for by BT.

"I was lucky that my employer paid for the course as part of my career development," he said. "I have a suspicion that I might have been promoted more if I had not done the course and had specialised in a certain discipline at BT. Knowing the language of finance and personnel, for example, has allowed me to move around the company.

"The course helped me work out what I wanted from my life and my job. I didn't see it as a means of promotion but I haven't done badly in terms of money since. There is a stigma attached to doing an MBA; people think it's like the film Wall Street, but it's not. The downside of the course is the effect it has on your personal life. The volume of work means you don't do much except take the occasional trip to the pub. It can damage personal relationships."

Kameha Lobodina, European business development manager for GN Comtext, followed a three-year part-time MBA at Brunel University. It was self-financed.

"I was working for Rank Xerox in my native Bulgaria and wanted to jump into a senior managerial role in the West. With my Bulgarian qualifications, I had no idea if any company would take me on, so I decided to do the MBA. The course was much easier than I expected but that may have been because my training at Rank Xerox had been so good that I already had an understanding of business. However, it did help me think in a more strategic way and definitely helped me get a better job with GN Comtext (a telecommunications provider) and much more money.

Justin Worsley, a planner at design company WTS, took a full-time, self- financed 12-month course at City University.

"I was working for an advertising agency but wanted to have a greater impact on strategy," he said. "The MBA broadened my knowledge but I also learned a lot from the people on the course, who were bright and very imaginative, although working in teams on projects could be quite combative and emotionally tiring. An MBA still has a certain kudos, although that probably depends on where it is from. It has allowed me to shift focus and move into design, where I have more effect on strategy and operate at a higher level. I have more money, too."