How to choose your course as MBA's change with the times

MBAs started a century ago – but the providers have learned to stay up to date. Midge Gillies reports

When Michael Osbaldeston graduated with a degree in biochemistry from Liverpool University, he thought he might enjoy working in business. Although he had no experience of the corporate world, his local authority paid for him to study for a new qualification called an MBA at Liverpool Business School. His fellow students were in their twenties, mostly from the UK and predominantly male. He was 22 when he completed his MBA in 1971, after what he later described as a "leisurely" two years.

As the MBA celebrates its centenary, Professor Osbaldeston, now chair of the Association of Business Schools, is more aware than most just how dramatically the qualification has changed. Students at Cranfield School of Management, where he is director, are on average 32 years old and have five to 10 years business experience. About a quarter of students are women and three quarters of all students come from outside the UK. It's a pattern that is repeated in most of the UK's big business schools.

The MBA has changed from something that most employers hadn't heard of to a qualification that many demand of their high-flying managers. MBAs used to be destined for jobs in consulting, banking, finance and a select group of international companies. Now MBAs are keen to work in public sector and not-for-profit jobs or as entrepreneurs. At Cranfield, around a third of students say they want to use their MBA to start their own business. This is quite different from Osbaldeston's experience as a young man.

"If you wanted to get a job with an MBA you were looked at quite suspiciously by most of the companies and I therefore went into consulting," he says.

Liverpool was one of a handful of schools to follow the lead set by London and Manchester Business Schools who, in the Sixties, launched what would later be recognised as MBAs. Harvard Business School, which was founded in 1908, claims to have created the very first MBA.

Prospective students are now spoilt for choice. The Association of Business Schools has over 100 members in the UK alone and schools are springing up all over the world. Students can study part-time, full-time or online, during a career break or as an executive MBA.

Jeanette Purcell, chief executive of the Association of MBAs (AMBA), points out that the fundamentals haven't changed – finance, accounting, strategy, marketing and human resources (HR) – and that AMBA will want to see them at the core of an MBA before accrediting it. But she adds: "Business schools are striving to deliver fundamentals in a more integrated way, because in business today, you tend not to work in areas of isolation. Increasingly, HR issues come under finance, finance issues come up in strategy and corporate social responsibility cuts across all of those activities."

A modern MBA is about thinking globally. Schools recruit students and faculty from around the world, offer overseas internships and exchange programmes and set up partnerships with other schools. There is increased emphasis on "soft skills" such as leadership, teambuilding, and entrepreneurship.

But in the UK only about 25 per cent of students on full-time courses are women, compared with 30 per cent in the US – where female students tend to be younger and not so worried about starting families. Purcell believes that the growth in part-time and online MBAs will help; but there is still a long way to go. The increase in schools north of London offering part-time MBAs was one of the reasons why AMBA is holding its fair in Manchester next Wednesday (see

"Too many women still think of the MBA as a macho, male-dominated, hard-skills type programme for people who want to go into consulting and finance. We have a job to do to change that perception," Purcell says.

AMBA has yet to release its most up-to-date figures, but Purcell says that enrolments appear to be holding up. In the next stage of the MBA's history she predicts that China and India may overtake the US as the main providers of the MBA and also that schools in Africa will grow in the next five years, particularly in South Africa, Botswana and Swaziland. She advises prospective students not to place too much emphasis on rankings, but to start with accredited schools.

"Decide what you're doing an MBA for – what you're going to do next, what your areas of interest are, how much money you've got, what you're prepared to give up and whether your employer is supporting you. Answer all those questions and that will help you to narrow your choice."

Osbaldeston urges students to look worldwide and to visit the schools: "Do take notice of the rankings because although business school deans like me have all sorts of hassles with their methodology, they certainly give you a good insight. And if they don't interview you, don't go."

'I learnt how to work with people from other cultures'

Tim Critchley, 35, spent 13 years working for small to medium-sized businesses before deciding to pay his own way through an MBA course at Manchester Business School.

A big part of the course is soft skills and we worked with a great organisation trying to renovate and run a community centre. There's a lady there who's quite inspirational, a 55 to 60-year-old grandmother, who's involved in so many things. If you want a lesson in time management, talk to her.

The team from Manchester Business School came from India, Japan, Korea and Columbia. We learnt how you manage and work with people from different cultures, but specifically working with the community. We put together a plan to map out what they need to do in the next 12 to 24 months to raise money. It gives you a different perspective when at the same time you're doing a project on huge mergers and acquisitions.

One of the reasons for choosing Manchester was its research into corporate reputation. I also competed in a venture capital investment competition and we got through to the world finals. My ideal job would be to run a sustainable and responsible investment fund – combining what I've learnt about venture capital with my interest in corporate responsibility. The MBA has brought all of those things together.