Anne-Marie Martin: Business schools have developed an impressive range of products

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The Independent Online

The Director of the Careers Group at University of London gives her view on the world of MBAs.

I have been listening to pundits, from the gloomy to the upbeat, predicting what will happen to the economy in 2008. The Confederation of British Industry fears a tough year for British businesses, what with the credit crunch, the predicted rise in food and energy costs and competition from the emerging nations. As ever, graduate recruiters are less forthcoming: in my 24 years in graduate recruitment no one has ever admitted publicly that they are having a hard time and may not be recruiting to the max.

Universities rely heavily on income from postgraduates and overseas students. Admissions tutors, especially in the lucrative business schools, watch the economy as nervously as anyone. To study for the coveted Master of Business Administration costs a lot of money.

During an economic squeeze, few companies will fund their employees to study, individuals who have jobs are less inclined to risk leaving employment to study and those without a job are less inclined to invest so much money in something that doesn't guarantee immediate employment.

Time was when any sort of recession would hit business schools badly, but they are not masters of the business world for nothing. They have developed an impressive range of products that ensures they will continue to attract students whatever happens to the economy.

There are more than 2,500 MBA programmes in more than 1,300 business schools, universities and management colleges in 126 different countries. The original, structured two-year full-time programme continues to be popular but, responding to the market, there are now many other ways of studying for an MBA. Part-time courses offer the chance to integrate study with practical application at work.

Distance-learning courses and internet-based courses enable students to learn flexibly and mixed-mode courses provide a combination of study styles – classroom, distance-learning and projects, usually on a modular basis. Executive MBAs demand senior management experience rather than an impressive academic track record. They charge a lot of money for bespoke programmes which emphasise networking with senior peers and academics in intense study periods and work based projects.

The best business schools prefer their students to have had some work experience so that they can gain the most benefit from their studies as well as contributing more effectively to team projects. A good MBA programme has been likened to a boot camp for managers. Students are drilled in every aspect of managing an enterprise, given massive amounts of work, expected to collaborate and compete with a broad spectrum of colleagues and generally exposed to a very intense experience. Of course the success of an MBA is not just about the teaching. The reputation of the school, the network of people on the course and access to the alumni network will assist you in managing your career.

Many leading business people possess an MBA and there is no doubt that adding such a qualification to your CV can help you prosper. Many of those who have studied on MBA courses speak highly of the experience as life-changing. No one, however, can say for sure whether it is the MBA that gives managers talent, energy and success or whether the talented, energetic and successful select themselves to do the qualification!

The range of programmes on offer is mind-boggling and, although all the courses give you the cache of the MBA letters after your name, not all are as valuable in the eyes of employers. Potential students should research well before choosing – both to make sure that the teaching style suits them and that the qualification is worth the huge amount of investment in time and money that they will have to make. The MBA Fair at the Business Design Centre. London N1 on 23 January offers a one-stop shop to find out everything you need to know about choosing and gaining an MBA.