Hilary Wilce: 'It's the UK's first MBA delivered entirely by a private organisation'

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The Independent Online

This autumn saw the launch of a new MBA from the London-based BPP Business School, and with it what could turn into a sea change in how business education is offered.

At first glance, the move seems insignificant. BPP's business school is only a small part of a business that is mainly known for its law school, and this new MBA is merely a niche qualification in legal business created especially for employees of one City law firm, Simmons & Simmons. However, it is also the first MBA in the UK ever to be delivered entirely by a private, for-profit organisation, and some business education observers believe it could be the first wedge in the currently closed door of MBA provision.

Until now, any private company offering an MBA has had to do it by teaming up with an established university or college. BPP has itself collaborated with Kingston University in the past. But the BPP College of Professional Studies, of which its new business school is a part, now has degree-awarding powers; and as Chris Brady, the school's dean, puts it: "This MBA is a pioneering programme, and there's nothing like this in the marketplace."

At the same time, Peter Lorange, former president of IMD business school, has just bought GSBA, the for-profit Zurich-based business school, announcing that he is sick of the "silo mentality" in universities, and vowing to work in a new and more flexible way, by bringing together experts from different business schools to provide specific courses. He also wants to work more with part-time programmes and with older people, and believes the future of business education is going to look very different from its past.

So, there is a definite possibility that, over time, privately offered MBAs could become the lean, mean, specially tailored management qualifications of the future. After all, why should students pay out tens of thousands of pounds for a traditional, broad-brush qualification, if they can get something altogether cheaper and more closely suited to their needs elsewhere?

Of course, the giants of the business school world will always remain untouched by such little fleas dancing around their ankles. London Business School leaders are never going to lose sleep over an outfit like BPP setting up a legal business MBA. But plenty of lesser institutions might do well to sit up and take notice.

This is especially true as the ripples from BPP's launch into business education looks as though they will go far beyond the narrow MBA market. BPP has recently been taken over by the huge, private higher-education company Apollo Global, which in the US runs the giant Phoenix University, with 400,000 students on its books. The university has become a byword for cheap, no-frills, higher education and the company has already expanded its operations into Mexico, The Netherlands and Germany. Now, by taking over BPP, the "McDonald's" of the university world has gained a foothold in the UK.

No one knows what the company's long-term plans are, although whatever they consist of they are likely to be welcomed by the Conservatives who are anxious to free up the market for education at every level and see a much greater mix of public and private providers. Business schools are on alert and consoling themselves with the thought that Apollo is likely to have a hard struggle to make its mark. Educational institutions trade on their names and reputations, they point out, and few students will be willing to fork out fees to an operation they have never heard of.

Yet some believe the company will now play a waiting game, lobbying for legal changes that will support its operations and working quietly to get established, before spreading out in all directions with an ever-growing array of Masters and other business courses. This seems plausible, given the company's track record in the US, and also the previous experience of Chris Brady at the nearby Cass Business School, which is known for its array of specialist courses. As one observer put it, if anyone in the world of business education knows how to do this, he certainly must.

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