If MBA student Tim Forber was hoping for a quiet fortnight to study for impending exams, he'll have been disappointed. Nick Clegg, David Cameron, Ed Miliband and the BNP all came to Oldham in the coming days ahead of the by-election – and Forber is the senior police officer in charge.
"No chance of having my head in my books. It's very difficult to plan in my job. Don't go into an MBA with any illusions, it's incredibly hard work," says Chief Superintendent Forber. Last year he won the Independent MBA scholarship at Durham Business School and has another year of study ahead of him.
While the past year has been tough – he also has three children under the age of five – the course content has been directly relevant to his expanding managerial responsibilities in the police force. "Everything I learn, I can apply immediately to my job. We have to cut £133 million from Greater Manchester Police's budget over the next four years and we're becoming more customer-focused – the MBA gives me a head start in understanding how we can do that," he explains.
While none of this year's scholarship winners are working in the public sector, their aims match those of last year's contestants: self-development and a desire to manage well and spread the benefits.
Annabel Cornish, 42, winner of the two-year executive scholarship, heads up her own web design and software company The Zebra Group. Nigerian IT specialist Adetokunbo Omotosho, 34, is taking a break from his senior role in Interswitch Ltd, a Lagos-based electronic transaction switching and payment processing company, to take up the full-time scholarship. Christel Adamou, 31, a French lawyer with the United Nations in Nairobi, has won the new distance learning Global MBA. In total the hotly-contested scholarships, now in their sixth year, are worth around £50,000 in total.
"I'm not in this for the money," says Cornish, who recently employed a business coach to cast new light on her business. "I fell into this line of work back in the days when you had to explain what the internet was. Focusing with a coach was invigorating. I'm very open to sharing ideas and learning. Durham has such a good reputation. I realised how much more fulfilled I feel personally and professionally when I'm progressing."
After graduating in history of design into the recession of 1991, Cornish worked in a Ford dealership before seeking more creative work with web design agencies. She and her business partner acquired what became The Zebra Group in 1995.
Just as the staff she trains externally are expected to apply their knowledge at work, she plans to put her study into practice immediately. As for how she will squeeze in a weighty academic course with the demands of work and family – she has three children – she has her fingers crossed. "We're a very supportive business. This course is very much for everybody's benefit; we want to expand," she says. "And I'll train my children to become more self-reliant. They're fully behind me; it was great for us a family for me to win this scholarship."
Omotosho predicts that one of his greatest challenges will be learning to become a student again and switching off from the demands of his work. "It's been seven years since I studied, but I'm sure I'll adapt," he says.
He chose Durham above other schools because of its focus on boardroom activity. "I wanted something to give me practical experience of leading business from the word go," he explains.
After undertaking several shorter management courses in preparation, Omotosho is looking forward to consolidating his experience so far. He says: "I want to be a business leader and return to my country and make an impact and a change in society. An MBA is a means to achieve that. I've been planning this for three years."
An MBA seemed a natural step for Adamou, whose string of qualifications include a Masters in law at the Sorbonne in Paris. Following an internship with the UN in New York in 2004, she has progressed to working in Nairobi, setting up a news justice administration system within the organisation.
Adamou won the Global MBA scholarship, a flexible programme of around three years, which allows her to study from a distance. She says Durham appealed to her because of its "blend of tradition, modernity and excellence".
She is seeking to broaden her understanding of business and management. "[Having an MBA] means being able to work in an international organisation at a strategic level or to face the global arena of business with confidence in the full knowledge that I will have all the tools to be successful and possibly make a difference anywhere in the world," she explains.
As a doctor with four more years of clinical practice before consultancy, last year's winner of the global scholarship, Helen Winslow is coping well, one year into her flexible course. Most of her study is off campus as a distance learner. She is based at Liverpool Royal Hospital where she works as a registrar. She says: "It's hard work, but the real carrot is attending seminars and meeting up with others – I've met other doctors on the course."
Although some of the management concepts she comes across on the course, such as using competition to drive staff, might need modification for the public sector, Winslow hopes to apply them constructively in the future. "People are well-intentioned, but the NHS has flaws. This [MBA] will give me options in a few years' time. The scholarship has been hugely helpful as I don't anticipate the course will immediately increase my earnings," she says.
MBAs have been heavily criticised for focusing on profit and high risk strategies that contributed to the global downturn. Durham has been at the forefront of reflecting a shift in focus in its MBA towards business ethics and sustainability, which contributes to its popularity. "Our reputation gives graduates a persuasive brand on their CV, but moreover their experience helps our graduates achieve their personal or career goals," says Professor Rob Dixon, dean at Durham Business School.
Colombian lawyer Carlos Sanchez Garcia, another of last year's winners, hopes the kudos of Durham will enable him to consolidate his experience in Europe for a couple of years before returning to Latin America. He is currently studying alongside his wife, who also attended Durham's full-time MBA. "It's been a year of work often until midnight," concedes Sanchez Garcia. The couple also have a two-year-old daughter to take care of.
While he had initially looked around at other leading UK business schools, Sanchez Garcia is delighted with Durham's standards – and the financial bursary. "The academic level of the teachers, and they way they teach, is amazing," he says. "The level of discussion adds so much. A lot of it has been theory, but with my background in law and political science, I'm happy with that. An MBA is a fantastic tool to use in the real world."