Best of all possible worlds: How to mix and match distance, part-time and full-time learning

In these uncertain economic times, it can be hard to decide whether or not to do an MBA. On the one hand, you know it will improve your qualifications, boost your networks and get you ahead of the crowd. On the other hand, it's probably unwise to leave a secure job or put yourself out of the loop on the job-hunting market.

You could, of course, always do an MBA part-time, or by distance learning, but then you'll miss out on all the good things about the campus experience.

Luckily, now it is possible to take a top-class MBA and get the best of all worlds. Students are increasingly able to mix and match elements of distance, part-time and full-time learning to build a package that is right for them, and many schools think this is the way of the future.

Nigel Banister, the chief executive of Manchester Business School Worldwide, says the substantial growth in flexible MBA programmes over the past five years has been driven by top business schools offering more credible alternatives to full-time MBAs. This in turn, he says, has attracted students from multinational organisations, often sponsored by their companies. And he sees this growth continuing and becoming ever more sophisticated.

"More technology will be used to support flexible MBAs, with the student learning space becoming similar to their working environments, through online collaborative project tools and simulation software to supplement the face-to-face tuition," says Banister. "In the future, employers will also want their MBA employees to have an international perspective, so there will be growth in offering part of an MBA at different locations across the world. In our programmes, students can study in Dubai, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Jamaica, Brazil and next year in Miami."

Edinburgh Business School, part of Heriot-Watt University, has made its MBA truly flexible. Alick Kitchin, business director of Edinburgh Business School, explains: "It is modular. You can do it in any order, you can start when you like and finish when you like, and the same things are taught across the whole range of pedagogies. You can, for example, do accountancy by distance learning and come on to campus to study marketing."

To offer worldwide flexibility, the university is in partnership with 25 other institutions, and offers its MBA in English, Chinese, Spanish, Arabic and Hebrew. Exams are taken at 363 centres worldwide. "But all our students take the same exam, on the same day, and all the papers are marked at Edinburgh," says Kitchin. "Students know that the course is flexible but also rigorous."

The programme is the second-largest MBA programme in the world, after that offered by the University of Phoenix, and is especially popular with students based in the United States who like having some "tartan time" in Scotland.

"Many schools give their distance-learning students a chance to come on to campus, but at Warwick you can start as a full-time student and do all your core modules on campus, then change your mode of study to distance learning," says Rachel Killian, the marketing and recruitment director for the MBA at Warwick Business School, which has been at the forefront of flexible learning. "It's brilliant if you don't want to be out of your job for 12 months, but still want the advantages you get from being on campus."

Doing an MBA in the current climate is "a bit like taking out insurance – you don't know that you need it until you need it," she says. But doing it flexibly makes it much easier for students. "If a company should pull out of its sponsorship, you know you've got a less expensive way to finish your MBA. And you can put things on hold for six months as well, if you need to. People sometimes do this if they have a new baby or a promotion."

At Bradford University School of Management, students really appreciate being offered flexible options. "If your employment moves you away, you don't have to start afresh with another school," points out David Spicer, associate dean for the MBA programme. "And if someone starts part-time, then loses their job, they can switch to full-time study and make good use of their time while they are looking for another one. Some of our part-time students also really like to get some of their electives out of the way by distance learning over the summer. All our models are consistent with each other. It's the same modules, with the same content, just delivered in different ways."

However, the university knows how much MBA students get from their colleagues. "So we tend to discourage people from too much cherry-picking and encourage them to stay with their cohort," he says.

'A flexible programme is really good, especially in the recession'

Marwa Bouka, 30, is a civil engineer with the United Nations World Food Programme in Syria, and started her MBA at Warwick two years ago on an Anglo-Syrian scholarship from the Saïd Foundation.

"I wanted to do something to push me to another level in my career, and I was looking at MBA programmes in the UK, but things were going so well with my job I was not happy to leave.

So I started my application as a distance-learning student. When I contacted Warwick, they said it was a flexible programme. I thought that sounded great – although it was also a little confusing to me until they explained it, because I thought full-time was full-time and distance learning was distance learning!

I started as a full-time student for three months and did six modules. It was very intense, but a really good experience. On campus, you are surrounded by people from all over the world. After that, I had a three-month break and did nine months as a distance learner, and then had another three-month break, and now I am back on campus for the last two months.

A flexible programme is really good, especially now in the economic recession. It is much easier for people to take a couple of months off than to leave their jobs. The only difficulty was making the switch to distance learning after being on campus. Working online is different, but you get used to it after a time."

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