MBA applications: Weathering the storm

At a time of financial uncertainty, applications for MBA programmes are on the rise. Peter Brown finds out why
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The Independent Online

No matter what happens to the global economy, it seems, applications to really good MBA courses keep on rising. Nearly two-thirds (64 per cent) of full-time business education programmes worldwide told the Graduate Management Admission Council that they received more applications this year than last.

Applications to the Judge Business School at Cambridge, for example, increased by 35 per cent. Next year it expects 850 applications for 150 seats.

At London Business School, David Simpson is already starting to look at applications for next year's 315 places. Last year was very good and this year applications were up again by around 20 per cent, he says. The new Dubai EMBA (executive MBA) started this year with a full class.

"We're very pleased, but the admissions process gets tougher every year for us," he says. "We have so much information. Many of the candidates have been preparing really carefully. We have to keep evolving our admissions processes."

Every year, LBS receives feedback from recruiters. Employers want people who can deal with the uncertainty of international supply chains. "Candidates need to be able to work with people from different backgrounds at every level in the company," he says.

There is an advantage to students in applying early, according to Simpson. It gives them time to plan. "What's most important is the thought process beforehand. Is the MBA right for me, my family and my future? Which institution offers me the best package for what I want to do?"

At LBS much of the programme's strength comes from the interaction between carefully selected students, he says. But there are people out there whose only option might be distance learning, which LBS doesn't offer.

The trend towards distance learning is part of a wider demand for flexibility. Jeanette Purcell, chief executive of the Association of MBAs (AMBA), which accredits courses, points to the worldwide growth in "blended learning" – courses that use a variety of methods and often incorporate online facilities.

"We do not believe that a good MBA can be delivered entirely online," she says. "You need some face-to-face interaction. But in the UK 50 per cent of MBA students are now on a non-full-time programme, either part-time, distance learning or an executive MBA. It grows every year."

The big French school HEC has just launched a part-time MBA programme in English – something that would have been unthinkable 10 years ago – in response to growing demand for greater flexibility from candidates and corporate partners.

Dr Mary Meldrum, head of postgraduate programmes at Manchester Metropolitan University Business School, says their offering is changing to meet student needs. "The executive MBA market can find it difficult to come in on the traditional weekly evening or afternoon/evening basis for classes," she says. "There is a growth in block delivery with online support which many managers find easier to plan into heavy workloads." The school plans to offer mixed modes soon.

The business school now offers part-time students the chance to take electives that were originally only offered to full-timers. Students who wish to take a particular elective tend to reorganise their working week.

So what is being taught, and how? Meldrum says that MBAs are moving away from a function-based syllabus to one that provides a more integrated view of business. This reflects the fact that organisations are more project-based, drawing skills from different departments. Communication and negotiating skills are becoming increasingly important.

Moreover, issues of social and environmental stewardship are increasingly part of the European MBA agenda. The Aspen Institute has published an alternative – and quirky – ranking of business schools called "Beyond Grey Pinstripes", which measures how well such issues are integrated into courses and research. Only one European school in the ranking – the Instituto de Empresa in Madrid – makes the top 10. In the conventional FT rankings, Wharton in Pennsylvania is still top and, from Europe, LBS and Insead are in the top 10 (the rest are American).

Classes are changing in character. Full-time MBAs are seeing more and more students from Pakistan, India and now Eastern Europe, particularly Poland. A market for business education is growing in the Far East and French schools are busy opening campuses in Shanghai and Singapore, British schools are forming Chinese partnerships and even Harvard takes students to China these days. Next month AMBA, which already accredits two Chinese schools, will be holding its first conference in Hong Kong.

Closer to home the Bologna Accord, signed by 32 countries, will bring continental Europe into line with Britain and America, with a bachelor degree always preceding a Masters and a doctorate. Kai Peters, chief executive of Ashridge Business School, calls it "probably the biggest shake-up in higher education that will happen in our lifetimes" but the process is moving slowly.

Peters predicts that the demand for pre-experience Masters (as opposed to MBA programmes which demands work experience) will be huge. He estimates that the MBA market will be 25,000 to 30,000 people. The pre-experience Masters market will be around 200,000. "That's a market that was zero in the past on the Continent," he says.

In other words, there's going to be a lot of competition and confusion. Schools are stepping up branding and investing in buildings – Audencia in Nantes has just opened a new executive centre.

The full-time MBA continues to be the flagship for many schools and to mark AMBA's 40th anniversary this year the association will unveil a list of patrons – successful business leaders with an MBA. "We've never said the MBA is the only road to business success, but it sure helps," Purcell says. "It's still the most powerful form of business education around." Indeed, the The Recruitment and Salary Trends Report 2007 confirms that MBAs are the highest paid postgraduates worldwide, across all major industry sectors.

Will the current economic downturn affect the MBA's future? At a time of financial uncertainty, people need an MBA says Purcell. "It's precisely at this difficult time that companies will be looking for people with a good grasp of versatility and change," she says. Simpson points out that "a buoyant economy has not seen the downturn in applications one might have expected."