Flexible learning: freedom to steer your life in any direction

Distance learning offers plenty of benefits, including great flexibility, says Matt Symonds

While business schools may devote a lot of energy and expertise in helping students understand the mysteries of economic cycles, they’re also no stranger to the laws of supply and demand themselves. In recent years, the rise in applicant numbers for the full-time MBA has coincided with a weak job market. Many young professionals have seen this as an opportunity to return to school to improve their managerial skill set and build a network of contacts for the next step in their career. But with the latest GMAC corporate survey showing a greatly improved MBA job market, many industry experts now anticipate a fall in full-time applicant numbers over the next two years as professionals focus on earning, not learning.

So are schools heading for their own downturn? Though many will find themselves competing for talent in a shrinking candidate pool, others see an opportunity in a more flexible format of learning, namely part-time and distance-learning MBA programmes.

Perhaps the ideal option for changing times, it combines study with a reassuring monthly pay packet Distance-learning business education has been one of the success stories of the last decade. Advances in technology, and an increasingly mobile audience of professionals around the globe have given rise to a number of mass-market providers who count their students in the thousands. The University of Phoenix has close to half a million postgraduate business students, while in fast developing economies such as India or Indonesia distance learners are counted in the millions. Many observers expect the Indian distance-learning market to double every year for the next five years.

But with certain courses offered for as little as £200 for a year of internet study, and little regard for candidate selectivity, such providers have faced heavy criticism for their supermarket approach. Top-tier international business schools have been slow to enter into this space, leaving professionals who wanted to acquire an MBA of genuinely international stature with a frustrating lack of choice. However, a new breed of distance-learning MBA programmes from well-ranked business schools such as IE in Madrid or the Kenan-Flagler University of North Carolina, USA, are now entering the market, applying stricter entrance criteria and utilising a blended methodology of face-to-face learning and online modules. They allow executives to study where they want, when they want, and receive a degree of equal standing to the full-time variety.

The UK provides one of the best examples of a leading business school committed to the distance-learning format. The Warwick Business School (WBS) draws on over 25 years of experience to deliver a distance-learning MBA (DLMBA) that combines a variety of teaching methods to provide students with flexibility and a global perspective.

Rated number one in UK by The Economist, the programme has seen a 20 per cent increase in applications in the last three years, attracting candidates from over 90 countries.

For executive director Jon Lees, the popularity of the DLMBA hinges on its flexibility. “The programme offers the individual significantly fewer attendance commitments and much greater opportunity to manage their study around work and family. This is particularly important for the experienced cohort we recruit at WBS. It’s also more suited to working patterns that are more project based, or require regular international travel that makes it difficult for individuals to commit to regular evening or weekend study.”

After leading a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation project aimed at developing an HIV vaccine, Romina Oxborough decided that she wanted to move industries. “The Warwick DLMBA gave me the confidence to look at project management roles even if I did not have the industry experience.” Romina hoped to bridge the business gap in her training and professional experience.

“My work involves finance, but I did not have the background to understand its overall impact on a firm. I wanted to become a senior manager in the pharmaceutical industry in a multinational company, and truly believe that the programme has given me the tools and the credibility to do so.” Importantly for Oxborough, Warwick awards DLMBA students an MBA degree, not a distance-learning MBA degree that some employers see as a lightweight qualification. During her studies, she joined Quintiles, the leading clinical research organisation, and now runs worldwide clinical trials with multimillion- pound budgets.

“Studying for a full-time MBA was out of the question due to the cost implication of not having a job,” she says. “But I did not want to miss out on the face-to-face interaction with faculty, and the chance to build a network.WBS offered the possibility of doing both.”

The ability to work as you study, boost your career and apply what you are learning, has traditionally been the argument to pursue an Executive MBA.

But such programmes are aimed at senior executives with at least 10 years of professional experience. For younger hopefuls hesitant to embark on a fulltime MBA, the part-time format may soon come to be identified as the other smart MBA choice.

At French business school HEC Paris, the MBA associate dean, Bernard Garrette, confirms the distinction. “This is not an Executive MBA. The part-time programme has been designed and is taught to match participants who have less managerial responsibility, but want an MBA from one of the world’s top business schools. Both the students and the companies investing in them benefit from course material and consultancy projects that are directly applicable to their own work.”

At HEC Paris, part-time applications have risen sharply in the last 12 months.

“In times where employees may not be willing to leave their jobs to pursue education, the part-time option provides a compelling solution,” says Garrette. “And, because you continue earning a salary, the return on investment compares favourably with a full-time MBA.”

The figures appear to back up his claim. In the most recent Graduate Management Admissions Council comparison, the part-time MBA provided a return of 680 per cent over a 10-year period against 147 per cent for the fulltime option. This figure can mainly be attributed to part-time MBA students continued earnings.

To reach international students, HEC Paris has re-thought the part-time format, proposing a modular format of one week of study each month spread over a two-year period. Consequently students are able to travel in from across Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. In the current class there is even a student from San Francisco.

It also works well for employers, who welcome the newly acquired skills that students bring to their job. For financial analyst Aurelie Cambier, the part-time programme at HEC Paris fit both her and her company’s needs perfectly.

“You build up your knowledge in the classroom, and can then directly apply the learning the following week in the office. You also learn when to say you don’t know, and learn to ask for help, which is in short supply in the professional world.”



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