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.

News
The guide, since withdrawn, used illustrations and text to help people understand the court process (Getty)
newsMinistry of Justice gets law 'terribly wrong' in its guide to courts
News
Bobbi Kristina Brown with her mother Whitney Houston in 2011
people
News
Starting the day with a three-egg omelette could make people more charitable, according to new research
scienceFeed someone a big omelette, and they may give twice as much, thanks to a compound in the eggs
News
Top Gun actor Val Kilmer lost his small claims court battle in Van Nuys with the landlord of his Malibu mansion to get back his deposit after wallpapering over the kitchen cabinets
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
The actress Geraldine McEwan was perhaps best known for playing Agatha Christie's detective, Miss Marple (Rex)
peopleShe won a Bafta in 1991 for her role in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
News
newsPatrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
News
Robert Fraser, aka Groovy Bob
peopleA new show honours Robert Fraser, one of the era's forgotten players
Life and Style
Torsten Sherwood's Noook is a simple construction toy for creating mini-architecture
tech
Sport
David Silva celebrates with Sergio Aguero after equalising against Chelsea
footballChelsea 1 Manchester City 1
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

Ashdown Group: Trainee / Graduate Helpdesk Analyst

£20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly reputable business is looking to rec...

Ashdown Group: Graduate Data Analyst - Essex - £25,000

£23500 - £25000 per annum + Training: Ashdown Group: Graduate Data analyst/Sys...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Account Manager

£16000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Graduate Account Manager is r...

Guru Careers: Graduate Account Manager / Sales Executive

£18k + Uncapped Commission (£60k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Graduate Account Man...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links