When it comes to choosing a business course, don't ignore the building, says Martin Thompson

UK business schools are in the throes of a building boom. Behind the slick new steel and glass facades, what can you expect in the way of facilities to ease the MBA learning experience?

Stepping out of your career to study for an MBA represents a major investment in time and money. Your search for a school which offers the greatest all-round value will inevitably take into account key aspects such as world ranking, the quality of the programme, faculty and fellow students as well as the school's reputation in the corporate world. If, having ticked all these boxes, the school that appears to fit you best is housed in unimpressive, sub-standard bricks and mortar with an overcrowded library and poorly equipped lectures theatres, you may move swiftly on to the next brochure. The look, feel and user-friendliness of the building in which you will spend an intensive MBA year is bound to influence your final choice.

Just as the retail and hospitality sectors have had to raise their game to meet customer expectations, so too have business schools. In a competitive international environment, British schools know full well that a prestigious state-of-the-art setting counts in their favour when attempting to attract the world's brightest and best. Jonathan Slack, chief executive of the Association of Business Schools, which represents 102 institutions, points to at least 20 UK schools which have either opened new facilities or have new buildings at the development stage. These range from Exeter's recently-completed £15m Xfi centre for finance and investment to Lancaster University Management School's new £9.5m leadership centre due to open next year. "There is a definite trend for UK universities to invest in their business schools, which have been good earners for them in the past. If you are a serious player, you must have the technology and the facilities to back it up," he says.

Financing such improvements can stretch budgets to the limit, but in the case of Imperial College London's Tanaka Business School, a £27m donation by alumnus Dr Gary Tanaka has resulted in an impressive Sir Norman Foster-designed building on Kensington's Exhibition Road. Beyond the imposing steel and glass exterior is a gleaming stack of six fully networked lecture theatres and a multipurpose forum which serves as the central social gathering point. Tanaka's principal, Professor David Begg, explains: "A business school such as ours, which focuses on high-tech products and networks needs to have the state-of-the-art facilities to match."

However, Professor Begg stresses that the physical environment is only part of the story of a successful school. "While the Tanaka benefaction has given us the stage to display our qualities, the real issue, of course, is the people you will encounter during your MBA. People are the substance of the school. But if there is a big gap between style and substance, then the substance can be undermined. At Tanaka, we have been able to attract star academics to teach our globally recognised courses in business, finance and health."

In the City of London, the Cass Business School has recently opened a £36m purpose-built high-tech development which the school's Professor Erik Larsen calls "a machine for learning". "We have the latest technology in the classrooms and 5,000 network points throughout the building." The planning for the new building became an academic research project in its own right led by Professor Clive Holtham. "This ultra-modern structure has partly taken its inspiration from the layout of medieval monasteries with their well-defined areas for private reflection and public gatherings, in the form of cells, refectory spaces and cloisters," he explains.

Traditional influences have also played a part in the highly contemporary design of the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford which opened its impressive new glass-fronted building in 2001. According to the dean, Professor Anthony Hopwood, the aim was to create an aesthetically pleasing and practical building which both contrasted with, and borrowed from Oxford's medieval heritage. "We have incorporated the concept of cloisters to encourage a flow of people around the building and our landscaped gardens are also designed to promote informal contacts. I call these 'democratic spaces' because of the ease of interaction which they facilitate." Saïd's new building incorporates a state-of-the-art information resources centre, and lecture theatres equipped with the latest audiovisual technology.

How to rate a building and its facilities

There's no doubt that a soaring glass atrium and up-to-date gadgetry can induce a "wow" factor at first sight. However, as a prosepective MBA student, you need to ask yourself whether that state-of-the-art showcase building will deliver what you need for a fully rounded experience. As you tour the school of your choice, ask yourself the following questions:

*What are the lecture theatres like in condition and size?

*Are they equipped with the latest audiovisual equipment?

*Does the school have videoconferencing facilities and adequate power and datapoints?

*How well equipped and comfortable are the seminar rooms?

*Are the social areas and cafés spacious and user-friendly? Do they offer a chance for students and staff members to mingle in a relaxed way?

*Is the library reserved for the use of business school students - in other words, is it shared with undergraduates?

*Do the library and other seating areas provide for private study?

*How friendly is the system for retrieving online journals?

*How many PCs and internet access points are available throughout the building?

*What is the general atmosphere when the building is crowded? Is it light and airy?

*Overall, is it the type of environment that is likely to be conducive to study and informal contacts with your peer group and faculty members?

It would make sense to put these questions to current MBA students.