This year, Kingston Business School's MBA celebrates its 20th birthday - and a growing list of international partners. Peter Brown reports

On a July evening this summer the Thames steamer Princess pulled away from Putney Pier with a cosmopolitan crowd of party-goers on board. Russian, Dutch and Greek graduates and students drank and danced their way to Tower Bridge with a similar number of British students, alumni and international faculty.

The trip was part of a week of international events to celebrate Kingston Business School MBA's 20th birthday, ending with a dinner at Hampton Court Palace, not far from the school's hilltop campus.

Some courses merely teach global business. The Kingston MBA puts it into practice. It exploited a niche market occupied only by the Open University when it began in 1984, expanding its decentralised model into Russia, the Netherlands, Greece and Cyprus. Both the core course and its international delivery through partner institutions have been accredited by the Association of MBAs since the early 1990s.

A measure of its success is the Independent AMBA student of the year award, won in 1998 by Angela Jenkinson and in 2003 by Natalia Buchstaber, both Kingston graduates, against entries from more than 80 business schools around the globe.

"We began small, with a target of 30 students, evenings only - walking before running," recalls Professor David Miles, then dean of the business faculty, now Pro-Vice Chancellor for external affairs and business development. "It took a classic form, matching best practice in the best business schools." The core ambitions of that early course remain in place - to understand and to meet the needs of mid-career managers both in content and in delivery.

"The Kingston MBA is essentially about leadership," says Ara Yeghiazarian, MBA course director. "Everything within the course is targeted at empowering business leaders. In fact despite the strength of the MBA as a brand name, I can foresee a time when the Master of business administration may be changed to Master of business leadership (MBL)".

These days the programme attracts more than 100 students each year who study at Kingston either full-time, part-time or at weekends on an open learning mode, plus around 300 to 400 international students who follow the Kingston MBA at partner institutions. In Greece the programme has proved particularly popular, capturing around a quarter of the local business education market through a partnership with ICBS Business School in Athens, Thessaloniki and Larissa.

The programme's success has been a team effort, says Peter Scott, Vice-Chancellor of Kingston University. But it has also clearly depended on the drive and expert knowledge of individual teachers.

In 2000 the school scored a publicity coup when Tony Blair took breakfast with two Kingston MBA students in Moscow to find out how young Russians saw their country. "I am keen to see more international collaborative links like this, making the experience of British higher education institutions more widely available," said the Prime Minister.

But Professor Robin Matthews, who set up the Russian programme, remembers all too well the early days before Blair's visit. "Exactly six months after the course began, the entire Russian economy collapsed," he says. "But that calamity made the programme stronger rather than weaker. A lot of students dropped out but we kept going, and the programme grew by reputation."

In Russia, the partnership is with the Academy for the National Economy, which administers the accreditation of all MBA programmes. "Russia is a land of opportunity," says Professor Matthews. "The students take more responsibility earlier here - they are directors of companies in their late 20s. And there is a great shortage of management skills. But Russian managers are also interested in ethics and social responsibility, and the impetus for that is coming from the Russians themselves. They saw what happened to Enron".

Behind Kingston's celebrations lies the certainty that other business schools are catching on, and catching up rapidly. What was a niche market in the early 1980s is now becoming a crowded marketplace. "The current challenge", says Dr Sonia El Kahal, general director of the MBA programmes, "is to consolidate the national and international competitive edge we built over 20 years and go forward with more innovative approaches and increased internationalisation of the curriculum and its delivery in global markets".

Although students from all centres follow the same programme, there is great flexibility to suit local economies and to meet local business demands. In Greece the programme is taught in Greek while at the same time using the English open learning material for academic support. In Russia, the students are awarded two degrees - one British and one Russian - simultaneously. In the Netherlands, the students have the opportunity twice a year to join UK students in activities ranging from joint international consultancies to company-based project workshops.

Delivery has also just started this year in Cyprus on a part-time basis and the business school is considering further partnerships in India and China.

"At Kingston, we are also striving to address the challenges faced by the changing market demands for MBA education," says Dr El Kahal. "The past 20 years have seen dramatic changes in the conditions within which business operates - globalisation has been the dominant force."

Another development is the increasing demand by women for an MBA. "This year our full-time programme has recruited more women than men. An MBA is highly regarded by young female professionals as the key to breaking the glass ceiling."

Finally, Phil Samouel, professor of business economics, sees cutting-edge research as the key to the future. "The business environment will become even more uncertain and dynamic in the next two decades", he says. "The fundamental core of the MBA programme must be to continue providing frameworks for decision-making, so that the chance of making costly errors is minimised.

"The Kingston MBA will maintain its future market currency by providing both fundamental and leading-edge knowledge on local, national and international business behaviour to the operations and strategic manager."