An MBA is an investment that will maximise your potential, says Emma Haughton

By any measure, the MBA is by far the fastest growing postgraduate qualification in the UK. Britain's output of more than 10,000 MBA graduates a year – while still a fraction of the 90,000 emerging from the US – is more than the rest of Europe put together, and the MBA is now regarded as the gold standard of modern management. More and more young people are seeing it as the sine qua non of expanding their career options and moving forward.

So shouldn't you be jumping on that bandwagon? It depends, says Howard Thomas, the new head of Warwick Business School: "You need to know why you're doing the course. Very definitely the reason should not be because you want to spend a bit more time studying – we don't want to accept perpetual students delaying the evil day of facing the real world."

More legitimate reasons include wanting to switch careers, to move from a narrow technical specialism into more strategic management, or wanting to gain the skills needed to set up your own business. Or you might simply need a breathing space and a chance to assess where you want to go next.

Doing an MBA for the right reasons is essential, because it's not a cheap option. In the United Kingdom, tuition fees average £8,000 to £12,000, but a one-year residential course at a leading school could set you back as much as £30,000, taking living expenses into account. The chances of getting sponsorship for a full-time course are slim, given that you may well use the opportunity to jump ship. Part-time or distance learners are far more likely to attract corporate sponsorship, with around 80 per cent given some kind of support by their employer.

So is it worth it? Most MBA graduates would give a resounding yes. You'll gain the full range of skills required to operate at a senior level of management, covering areas such as accountancy and finance, economics, marketing, organisational behaviour and information technology. You'll also improve your team and personal skills and get a chance to refine your career options through a wide choice of specialisms.

Though expensive, the MBA can pay for itself several times over in financial and career terms. Association of MBAs figures from last year found that graduates from accredited programmes were earning an average of £64,000, with the top 3 per cent gaining more than £200,000 a year. You're also more likely to get your hands on that coveted promotion – in a recent survey, 90 per cent of MBA graduates from the Open University reported being promoted more than once while studying or on completing their course.

The growth of international diversity is reflected by recent alliances between schools. London and Columbia business schools, for instance, announced earlier this year that they would offer a joint part-time programme to offer a perspective beyond the usual US or Eurocentric one. "We each have significant strengths," says Ian Hardie, associate dean for executive education at London Business School. "Columbia runs a very successful mergers and acquisitions course, and we are known for our human resource management programme. By teaming up, we take advantage of these strengths and offer high-impact courses to more participants globally."

This move towards a more global approach is one reason Cranfield recently launched a modular MBA to complement its full- and part-time courses. "The internationalism of the part-time option was limited because of the weekend module and attracted just 10-15 per cent foreign students," says Leo Murray, dean of Cranfield. "With the modules, they come for modules of two weeks, which is much more feasible from long distances."

Indeed, one of the biggest hikes in demand is for more flexible ways of getting an MBA. Whereas a one-year full-time course suits people who want a complete change in job or career direction, part-time studying allows you to stay in employment, meaning far more chance of sponsorship and a chance to put your new- found skills into practice from day one.

In 1999, the most recent year for which figures are available, 58 per cent joined part-time or distance learning programmes in the UK. But this does present something of a challenge for schools and students. Whereas full-timers get ample opportunity to interact with their peers, share ideas and develop team and personal skills, those attending campus more rarely may have to be more creative.

"There is always this challenge of managing presence over distance," says Murray. "But you can get round it in increasingly clever ways, such as interactive classrooms and chatrooms, and sharing and sending information over the Web. Chatrooms are having a big impact even with the full-timers – we're not waste precious teaching time on double-entry bookkeeping, so we can keep classes for the really interesting stuff."