The internet has helped make distance learning a viable alternative, says Nic Paton

Love or loathe them - and business schools remain sharply divided about their merits - distance learning MBAs are becoming an increasingly popular option.

According to the latest statistics from the Association of MBAs (AMBA), take-up rates for distance learning MBAs have gone up by 80 per cent in the past decade, with around 2,500 of the estimated 12,000 MBA students at any one time in the UK now doing a distance learning qualification.

It's not hard to see why. Rather than having to give up work or put the career on holds, the internet and e-learning technology have made it much easier to do an MBA alongside the day job.

The growth in part-time executive MBAs, which have a strong distance learning element, is another factor. Traditionally targeted at senior managers, EMBAs are becoming a popular choice for middle ranking managers, says Dr Andy Bailey, director of Lancaster University Management School's executive MBA.

"What we're seeing is an increasing number of executive MBA students in their late twenties who see that gaining the qualification needs to run alongside their progression within their organisation," he points out.

Yet of the 119 MBA programmes accredited by AMBA, it is still only a minority - 27, of which only 11 are specialist - that offer an online or distance learning curriculum. So anyone going down this route needs to ask serious questions before taking the plunge.

These should include: what should I expect to pay, how long should I expect it to take and what sort of support will I get if, as is more than likely, I have a wobble?

AMBA recommends a distance learning programme should be at least 1,800 hours, with a minimum of 120 hours of face-to-face contact, and should normally be able to be completed in two to three years.

But many students will take much longer. Warwick Business School suggests anything up to eight years is acceptable, while the Open University Business School (OUBS) argues six. When it comes to cost, there are large variations - with Warwick and Henley Management College charging around £13,000 compared to just under £6,500 at Leicester University Management Centre.

Methods of delivery vary widely too. Most offer a mix of remote learning with occasional face-to-face seminars or workshops and residential exams, often through centres in different countries.

Some, such as the OUBS, run local tutorials and others, such as Warwick and Bradford University School of Management, allow students to transfer to different modes of study or take face-to-face modules.

Some schools run "global" EMBAs using distance learning but split between different countries. Barcelona's IESE, for instance, splits modules between Madrid, Barcelona, Shanghai and Silicon Valley, with exams taken online.

But this globalisation is creating issues around accreditation (or lack of it), with some academics warning of the growth in unaccredited, online diploma mills.

In the UK and Europe, the two accrediting bodies are AMBA and Equis. But in the US it is the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB).

Non-accreditation may not necessarily mean a programme is of poor quality. At Liverpool University, for instance, it is largely because the programme is totally internet-based.

"It may be that there has been a peak in on-campus programmes," suggests Dr Alan Southern, director of studies for Liverpool's online programme.

"What we are able to do is put people in a classroom from Toronto, the Middle East and the south of England and they learn from each other," he adds.

Whereas some distance-learning MBAs are essentially bolt-ons to full-time programmes, an increasing number are being set up as stand alones, points out Alick Kitchin, business director at Edinburgh Business School, part of Heriot-Watt University, another unaccredited programme.

One of the many attractions of distance learning MBAs is the way they are opening up business qualification to parts of the world, particularly Asia and Africa, often overlooked, he argues.

In Edinburgh's case, 16 per cent of its MBA students are now from Africa, with a similar percentage from Asia and 10 per cent from the Middle East.

Non-completion rates are another issue students should ask about. At Edinburgh, for instance, Kitchin concedes that early drop-out rates are "relatively high". But he points to a 70 per cent completion rate once students have completed and passed their three courses to register or, as it's called in Scotland, matriculate. He also stresses that students pay fees as they go (at £800 a course) so if they do drop out early they lose only what they have already studied for.

"Distance-learning can take up to four years and a lot can happen," agrees Chris Dalton, programme leader of the Henley distance learning MBA.

Henley, where the completion rate is 60 per cent and the target is 70 per cent, has set up a network of personal tutors who can help and, if necessary, cajole students through the programme.

This was invaluable in helping Tim Arnold, 47, now head of international operations at the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, complete his Henley MBA last October.

"Everyone who does a distance-learning MBA has moments when they get fed up or the pressure gets too much. But my tutor was able to step in before things became a crisis," he explains.

"He was also able to push me along and point me in the direction of people who could help."