From Leicester with love: Distance learning is fast becoming a popular way to achieve an MBA

Distance learning has opened up management courses to a range of students who don't fit the usual profile, but none so surprising as the nun from a closed monastery in Cyprus who enrolled with the University of Leicester.

Quite what the mechanics of branding, managing risk or gaining competitive advantage have to do with a life of quiet devotion in a small female community is hard to imagine but study she did, with the help of video conferencing as visitors were not allowed through the gates.

Leicester's school of management has devoted significant resources into building up its distance learning programmes since it was set up as a separate department in 2002 and now has 6,000 studying remotely – even more than the Open University, which has nearly 4,000.

Sending out course materials is like a crash course in logistics for the department's administrators. Text books and materials are dropped by airmail and couriered weekly to students in 72 different countries. Last summer, staff had to arrange a venue and invigilator for a student taking exams on São Tomé and Principe, the two volcanic islands that comprise Africa's second-smallest country.

In 2008-09, the school dispatched 23,635 study items worldwide to 3,414 students. Among the grateful recipients was a student in St Helena, the world's most remote island in the South Atlantic Ocean. Like the University of London, which provided course materials to servicemen in prisoner of war camps during the First World War, Leicester does not let battles get in the way of education. In 2005, a member of the British Army sat exams in Baghdad in a room where windows and doors had been blown out.

Then, in 2007, exams were organised in Kinshasa in the middle of heavy fighting and night curfews in the Democratic Republic of Congo. But only half the candidates were able to turn up for exams in Nairobi during the post-election unrest in 2008.

The school of management has provided education throughout the civil war in Sri Lanka, but its efforts were nearly defeated in February 2009 when Tamil Tiger rebels used smuggled aircraft to bomb Colombo, causing a blackout just as one of the school's professors arrived to conduct a workshop.

The internet has helped boost the rapid rise in distance learning MBAs offered by UK schools, but they vary widely in quality and the amount of support for students. Drop-out rates are generally higher for distance learning programmes and at least one school has lost accreditation by failing to satisfy the Association of MBAs that it was doing enough to tackle its low graduation rate.

However, Leicester's drop-out rate is lower for distance learners: less than 10 per cent over five years, compared to less than 10 per cent in the first year for full-time students. This is attributed by the university in part to the network of distance learning agents across the world, who provide closer access to face-to-face support, boosted by visiting staff from the UK.

Hundreds of students make the journey to Leicester each year for the summer school. This year it will also be held in Miami for the large number of students enrolled in the Caribbean. The department is now looking at providing regional residential courses in Beirut and sub-Saharan Africa.

Increasing access to the internet has also helped distance learners by keeping them in touch with the department and each other through video conferencing and online seminars and discussion groups. The system has become so slick and personalised that Professor James Fleck, the dean of the Open University business school, refuses to use the term "distance learning", saying that the students have a closer relationship with their tutors than many full-time students. The vast majority of students continue to work while taking the part-time MBA, which means they can immediately put what they learn into practice, he says.

The fact the University of Leicester has almost twice as many students on its distance learning management programmes as on its regular courses is surprising, given the Open University's international reputation.

Professor Simon Lilley, head of the Leicester school of management, believes the unorthodox nature of the course has struck a chord with students, especially during the global economic downturn.

"Unlike most mainstream Western business schools, our primary concern is with challenging the status quo rather than perpetuating it," he says. "We seek to give voice to those individuals and groups who are traditionally overlooked in global management and organisational processes."

By illustration he points to the cover of a recently published book co-authored by Campbell Jones, a senior lecturer in the department. On the cover it features a beggar squatting in the street next to his handwritten notice that states "entrepreneur".

'Finding time to study makes me more organised at work'

Distance learning was the only option for Sylvie Rhugenda, whose work in the telecommunications industry takes her around Africa. She found out about the MBA at the University of Leicester on the internet and applied while living in Uganda. By the time she received the letter of rejection – saying her bachelor degree did not meet the admission requirements – she had moved to Gabon on the west coast of Africa.

The university's agent in West Africa advised her to first take a diploma in human resource management, which she passed with distinction while back in the Democratic Republic of Congo, her home country. Now in Chad working for a telecommunications company, she devotes two hours a day to her studies, wherever she finds herself. "I love Africa but I'm convinced that exposure to different cultures is a fantastic adventure," says Sylvie, 32. "Though I have never been to the UK, distance learning at Leicester has brought me a part of the British way of being and I am proud to bring part of the African way of being to my assignments.

"I've worked in telecommunications since 2001 and I am confident the MBA will be an asset for my career. The degree will give me worldwide professional recognition."

Keeping up with the work is challenging as she moves around the continent, especially in areas where access to the internet is erratic.

But she makes use of every opportunity. While her colleagues were sleeping on a plane back from Nairobi to Kinshasa recently, she was doing her course reading. "Having to find time to fit in my studies makes me more organised at work," she says.

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