Choosing A Course: Make your choice with care

As employers become more particular about the quality of an MBA, it is important to make sure yours has a good reputation
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The Independent Online

The golden days of the late 1990s, when an MBA graduate could walk out of business school and immediately command a salary increase of 40 per cent or more, appear to be over. In recent years, business schools around the world have seen numbers on MBA courses falling off, and new graduates, according to a survey by the Association of MBAs, have seen their salary increases drop to an average of 18 per cent. Instead of competing to employ people with MBAs, companies are now taking a long, hard look at where an individual's MBA comes from.

The golden days of the late 1990s, when an MBA graduate could walk out of business school and immediately command a salary increase of 40 per cent or more, appear to be over. In recent years, business schools around the world have seen numbers on MBA courses falling off, and new graduates, according to a survey by the Association of MBAs, have seen their salary increases drop to an average of 18 per cent. Instead of competing to employ people with MBAs, companies are now taking a long, hard look at where an individual's MBA comes from.

But potential MBA students should not be daunted. The MBA market has matured, and this is an excellent time for a discerning and committed applicant to pick and choose where to study. There seems no doubt that a good MBA - from an accredited school, with a strong programme and a good international mix of students - continues to be a powerful tool in helping to shape a career, provided that the student combines this with a clear idea of what they want from an MBA and a sense of where they are headed.

Scratch the surface of the dip in numbers, and some interesting trends emerge. Many business schools are repositioning themselves and restyling their courses in a changing market, leading to more variation in MBAs, more flexibility and, in some cases, more specialisation.

This makes it all the more imperative that applicants do their initial research and make their choices carefully. As Jeanette Purcell, chief executive of the Association of MBAs (AMBA), emphasises, it is now simply not good enough just to look at business school rankings.

David Begg, principal of Tanaka Business School, Imperial College London, predicts that some new courses that have sprung up in recent years will now close.

"I think there will be a shake-up, which will be healthy. Some schools, whose MBAs did not have much to distinguish them in the first place, will realise that the MBA is not the golden goose they thought it was." Schools in the premier league will remain secure, but others, Begg believes, will need to find something distinctive that marks them out from other schools.

The Tanaka Business School capitalises on Imperial College's world-class strengths, particularly in engineering and bio-medicine, and gives its MBA more of a scientific flavour. MBA students now do a compulsory technology venture project, involving a commercial feasibility study on a piece of live intellectual property produced by the college. Two MBA students, for instance, were instrumental in the £60-£70m flotation of a new company which originated in Imperial's engineering faculty.

"What we are good at is the science of business and the business of science, and we focus on these things," explains Begg. "We would rather be a niche specialist in our chosen field than a 'me-too' player in the premiership."

Cranfield School of Management places particular emphasis on the personal development aspect of its MBA course. Students undergo a range of challenging role-play situations, including a mock television studio, where they have to give interviews to the media on a contamination crisis in their baby-food factory.

"It's not what you know, but how you communicate what you know," says Sri Srikanthan, director of Cranfield's executive MBA.

Cranfield courses have also been reshaped, in response to market needs, to explore business problems in a more themed, holistic way, rather than looking separately at different business functions.

New trends are also apparent in the way courses are delivered. Cranfield is one of a number of schools to report buoyant numbers on part-time executive MBAs and a decline in take-up for full-time courses.

Cranfield also now offers a modular executive MBA to suit overseas students who come for fewer, longer residential periods.

Kent Business School, which hopes to gain accreditation from AMBA this year, is also introducing a modular part-time programme. The school has down-sized its full-time programme to a maximum of 50 students (compared with 120 in the past) as a way of strengthening relationships between students and faculty. Chris Bristow, director of postgraduate management programmes, reports increasing interest from the public sector, as well as a dawning recognition from the voluntary sector and charities that people with MBAs may have something to offer them.

Martyn Jones, dean of Kent Business School and an international adviser on AMBA's accreditation council, is optimistic about the future of the MBA globally, and sees a lot of innovation and greater sophistication in course design, via the flexible learning platforms, which mean that course delivery can be tailored to people's needs. He believes that business schools will keep increasingly close links with students after they graduate, conducting "periodical education health checks" to help them in their careers.

Confidence in the MBA is also running high in Germany, a late-comer to the market but determined to rise to the best international standards. In January next year, the European School of Management and Technology in Berlin will launch its first one-year MBA, with the support of 25 of Germany's biggest companies. The school hopes to attract an international mix of up to 40 students, 25 of whom will be eligible for an ESMT scholarship.

Finding a niche for the MBA is important, says Professor Derek Abell, ESMT president.

His aim is to bring together a range of talented professionals, from engineers to architects, in their late-20s to mid-30s, and to give them not just book-learning but hands-on, practical experience in international companies.

"A lot of MBAs, after they graduate, go to work in consultancies or investment banks," he says. "But we want these people to go back to the same place - to their architect's office, hospital or engineering company - with the ability to run something. Companies want growth, and it is these people that they need."

'Part-time study lets you apply your learning to your work'

Jane Hatfield, 37, is in the second year of a part-time MBA at Cranfield School of Management, after winning a Cranfield Trust Scholarship for managers from the voluntary sector in 2004. She recently moved jobs and is now director of national and regional development for Breast Cancer Care.

"I was interested in doing an MBA as a way of improving, and testing out, my management skills. But at first I ruled it out because of cost: the fees at Cranfield are £32,000. So I was delighted to get the scholarship, as it meant I could go ahead.

A lot of people in the private sector do the MBA because they think it will improve their salary. I wanted to do it for personal development, and I thought the experience of working with people from other sectors would be quite exciting.

Although it's hard work doing it part-time ­ at least 12 hours of your own time every week, as well as your job ­ it means you can apply what you are learning to your work fairly quickly, and that appeals to me. If I had children, I think that would make it very hard.

There are four people on the course from the voluntary sector, out of 36 students. The majority are from the commercial sector, and some of the principles of customer services and marketing are terribly relevant to us: we have to get that right.

I have learned a lot about myself, and done better at finance and strategy than I would have thought. Although I wasn't completely sure at first, increasingly I recognise that this has been a very positive experience."

'I chose to study full-time so that I could be immersed in it'

David Spackman, 42, did a PhD in organic chemistry, and worked for Dextra Laboratories and Fischer Scientific UK. He is now on the one-year full-time MBA programme at Tanaka Business School, Imperial College London.

"I had worked in sales and marketing for a laboratory supplies company and spent time in research and development, and what I really wanted was something that could pull it all together and give me the whole business picture.

I wanted to accelerate my career so that I could move to a more senior job, possibly at board level, and I decided that an MBA would give me that broader view and understanding.

Support from my wife made the MBA possible, and I chose to do it full-time so that I could be immersed in it completely.

At Imperial, the MBA is not an academic exercise: you're up to your armpits in doing it for real. You're given a piece of intellectual property, and you get the opportunity to decide whether there is a market for it. There is a lot of practical know-how, about to how to deal with venture capital and what it's like to be a start-up company, and you see it from all sides.

What I've got most out of it is not so much the information but the learning I've done, finding out for myself and applying that to the years of experience I've got. The MBA helps you to make sense of what you've already done, and to understand what you need to do. Being an older student has big advantages, because you can get a deeper sense of your own learning."

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