Find the programme to suit your ambitions

There is no simple answer to the question of which MBA to pursue, it takes careful introspection and extensive research

Am I the right age to make the most from an MBA? What length and type of course should I opt for? These are just a few of the many vital questions that prospective students of a full-time MBA will need to answer. This is where the Audencia survey can come in handy, since it offers insights into the minds of MBA programme directors throughout the world and can help you decide on the right course for you.

Yet the survey has produced some surprising results that need careful unpicking. Take the question of the ideal age to study for an MBA. Half of MBA programme directors answering the survey thought applicants should ideally be between 27 and 29 years old. The anonymous responses may show that those who run the courses appear to be out of sync with current trends.

Sharon Bamford, chief executive of the Association of MBAs (AMBA), an accreditation provider, says: "Many people choose the full-time MBA route to help them change sectors mid-career. They are therefore more likely to be in their early 30s than their late 20s." This is borne out by AMBA statistics that show the global average to be in the early 30s for full-time programmes. In any case, Bamford points out that, schools accredited by AMBA look for the ideal candidate rather than students of a specific age.

Ulrich Hommel also believes that there is no ideal age to enrol on a full-time MBA. He runs the research and surveys unit at the European Foundation for Management Development, which administers the Equis accreditation for business schools. "It will depend on the particular course," says Hommel. "You can design it to target different age groups. The average student age varies with the state of the economy. People are more likely to take time out for an MBA if the economy is not doing too well."

Andrew Taylor at Audencia, who helped construct the questionnaire and interpret its results, says: "The disparity in the responses to this question shows that schools have to be careful to ensure that what they are teaching is of sufficient relevance to an older age range with more professional experience."

What is the ideal length of a full-time MBA course? Here again, the replies from course directors present mixed messages. Almost half the respondents consider 12 months to be the ideal length, but 35 per cent believe that 18 months would be better. As 67 per cent of those who answered are based in Europe, where the norm for an MBA is 12 months, this would suggest that there is a mismatch between what business schools ideally want and what they can actually offer.

"The responses may show there is a feeling among programme directors that they would ideally like to have more time to teach. A one-year course is very intensive," says Taylor.

"We have to be careful that the MBA keeps its value from the employers' perspective," says Hommel. "The shorter the programme, the less the students take away from it. It ideally involves some kind of cross-border experience, studying and travelling abroad for workplace learning.

"This doesn't fit easily into the one-year model, which means that many students are missing out on an important element of the course. The survey results show that some MBA directors are clearly looking for this kind of flexibility to broaden student experience."

Bamford believes that there should be less emphasis on the ideal length of an MBA and more on the flexibility of a particular programme. "Our own research at AMBA shows that more people are now enrolling on part-time courses each year and these tend to take longer than 12 months," she says.

"The notable change in MBA programmes is the extent to which their style of delivery has been adapted to meet differing patterns of demand. In the current economic climate MBA students have to consider loss of earnings during the year they are studying, so many are now looking for part-time, distance or blended courses."

Elsewhere in the survey, MBA programme directors were asked to compare the importance of rankings, international accreditation and the profile of a school's brand for attracting students. Accreditation came out on top. Given that business schools tend to underline the huge influence of rankings on their image, this too could be seen as a surprising result. Yet, as Bamford points out, rankings are based on a limited range of benchmarks. "If students choose a programme that is accredited they know they are getting a global standard. The accreditation process involves a comprehensive, independent audit of systems, people and processes."

Hommel says this response shows that schools regard accreditation as more effective in providing a lasting value for their brand. "All business schools have to be involved in rankings. But for their prestige and marketing, accreditation counts more as a sign of quality and doesn't reflect the weighting that rankings give to salary uplift after graduation."

Do courses generally match the ambitions of those who enrol on the MBA? Bamford spells out a clear message: "Business schools should step away from the rankings and compete by offering what students need to help them choose the right programme for their professional and personal development."

Taylor explains that the objective of the survey was to "draw out some aspects of MBA programmes that aren't tackled by the rankings and to take the pulse of the MBA world". He adds: "We see this as a quick check-up, reviewing the qualification's health year-on-year, rather than giving it a full examination."

If the opening results of this new annual survey demonstrate one thing, it is that students considering enrolling for an MBA need to look well beneath the surface and be prepared to ask searching questions of staff and current students before they make a decision that is likely to profoundly influence the course of their careers.

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