Many students take their MBA at a distance – but few stretch the idea as far as Nigel Clifford, 47, who studied towards his Open University qualification while riding an off-road motorbike from England to Gambia, in West Africa. Now sales manager for Airflow Engineering, a company selling specialist equipment to industry, he has a background in the chemical industry and in developing care homes for the elderly, and decided to take an MBA in order to boost his career.
But, after a stressful time sorting out the family business, he found himself in need of a break to clear his head. He was put in touch with the charity MondoChallenge Foundation, which decided he would be just the person to help support a bee-keeping project in West Africa. So, not being one to do things by halves, he bought a motorbike, got his jabs and visas, and set off for Banjul within the week.
"The thing about the Open University is that they make it easy for you to do your MBA anywhere. They're totally flexible. At the time, no other university was doing it in the same way. When my tutor heard what I was doing, he said: 'I expect we'll have to put things on hold for a year', but I said I'd just carry on. I had a little PDA [personal digital assistant] with a fold-out keyboard, and, going across Europe I'd sit down in a hostel and do my work, then go to an internet café and add graphics and send it to Sue, my wife, for proof-reading."
This was fine on the Southampton-to-Gibraltar leg, but less easy in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco or spinning along the "long, boring" road through Western Sahara, and pretty much impossible once he arrived in the badlands of Mauritania and northern Senegal "where the local police were in cahoots with the local criminals and they fleeced me of every dime". Studies were set aside while he bribed his way over borders, tracked down scarce "essence" for the bike, paid locals to tell him which of the six alternative tracks out into the desert was the one without landmines, and generally got roughed up, shaken down and beaten up.
His vividly written diary of the 2004 trip tells of sleet, earthquakes, high winds, sunburn, accidents and machete-wielding night visitors, but also regularly records "couple of hours' study by torchlight... spend 8am to 9am studying... a day's rest and catch up on some study".
Four weeks and 4,200 miles later, he was safely in Gambia, where he lived in a family compound "with some water and a pitfall toilet. I'd study in the evenings, but I'd use the office at the parliament buildings if I wanted a computer. I think I was late once with an assignment, and they gave me an extension".
His studies were of immediate practical use, he says, helping him to negotiate $70,000 (£44,000) of funding for the bee-keeping project from the United Nations and the World Food Programme, and to put the whole enterprise on a sounder footing. "I came back more tolerant, patient and grateful," he says, and full of admiration for the way the OU runs courses totally geared to distance learning. "What I did proves just how good they are at it."
He isn't the only one. Gildas Manach, a nuclear engineer onboard a French submarine, is an MBA student. "I spend a lot of time at sea, and it is quite difficult for me to attend the tutorials, so I spend a lot of time studying in my submarine especially in the evening. The main drawback is that I don't have access to the internet, but I do my best to exchange ideas with members of my group when I am in the harbour."
Meanwhile, Claudia Vischer, 33, an international marketing manager for a veterinary pharmaceutical company and a qualified vet, studies wherever she finds herself. "I take course notes with me everywhere, so I often find myself studying on the beach, at airports, on the plane, on a train. On holidays sailing in the Grenadines, relaxing on Thai beaches, skiing and hiking in the Swiss Alps – no matter where I am, I always have some kind of Open University module/unit tucked away in my bag, for any spare minute that might appear." As she comes to the end of her course, her studies have already paid off with two good career moves.
The OU pioneered distance learning at a time when no other universities were offering such flexibility. The internet has since changed everything, but the OU knows it is still years ahead in terms of wisdom and experience and its triple-accredited MBA attracts about 1,000 new entrants a year, mainly from the UK and Europe, but also from other parts of the world.
"We are dealing with people in the busiest phases of their lives and in all kinds of situations," says Mike Lucas, associate dean for curriculum and learning design, "and this is reflected in the way in which we have designed our materials and support. Flexibility is bedded into our culture, and the foundation stones of the OU still show through. A key element is our tutors. They are an amazing band who will always negotiate individually with students and say things like: 'Well, if you're in that situation you obviously can't come to these tutorials, so why don't you get on with that, and then we'll make sure you get a catch-up on the other stuff later.' It's all about giving people choice under differing circumstances."
The university retains print materials for students studying in parts of the world where connectivity is difficult, and works closely with partner organisations in countries such as Russia and Ethiopia to ensure local tutoring standards are kept high.
This autumn, it launches a new MBA with increased international exposure. "We wanted to leverage the worldwide reach we have and bring it into the delivery," says Lucas. New students will have to interact with two other groups of students in other parts of the world as part of their MBA course.