MBA finance modules: Should qualified accountants be exempt?

You are a qualified accountant with an ambition to become chief executive. To make the grade, you'll need to learn more about general business strategy but don't see the value of sitting in on finance classes that tell you what you already know. How will schools react to this?

"Some believe accountants should not gain exemptions because they will get too easy a ride," says Peter Calladine of the Association of MBAs (AMBA). "Opinions are divided on this and it is wise to check a school's individual policy before applying." Calladine himself believes there is a compelling argument for offering exemptions for distance-learning MBAs where the face-to-face aspect is not relevant.

Business schools which remain opposed to exemptions include Cranfield and the Judge in Cambridge. "Skill sharing and effective team building are things you learn on an MBA and you don't get these by sitting out the class because you already have the badge," says Richard Barker, MBA director. Henley, on the other hand, does offer an exemption from the managing financial resources module for qualified accountants while Ashridge has developed a diploma in general management which can take students directly to the second year of a part-time MBA. Consisting of six exams in standard MBA areas, the only stipulation is that it must be completed within three years.

Elswhere, Smurfit in Dublin will give credit only in "exceptional circumstances". while Bocconi in Milan remains opposed to this approach but has announced a doubling of its offer of English language MSc programmes to six. If you have the time and the money to cross the Atlantic for an MBA from Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, they will give exemptions from the financial accounting module for UK-qualified accountants. "This is quite usual in US business schools but will not reduce the overall time commitment as these students are expected to take on additional electives," explains Sally Jaeger, Tuck's MBA programme director.

For their part, the UK-based professional bodies governing accountancy appear to accept that an MBA will provide a broader view of business than the core accountancy qualification, however rigorous. This has led them to team up directly with business schools to offer qualifications that fit their members' needs for continuous professional development while making manageable demands on their time.

In this spirit, both ACCA (the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants) and ICAEW (the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England & Wales) have endorsed Saïd Business School's new diploma in financial strategy, a Masters-level course providing the essential elements of an MBA for those working in finance with a first degree and at least five years' work experience. The course is organised in the same way as the executive MBA, with exams after each module and a dissertation at the end. It has so far attracted high-level international applicants from a wide range of sectors including finance, oil and brewing. Saïd is now looking at ways of expanding its portfolio of similar diploma courses covering different parts of the MBA.

ACCA has also teamed up with Edinburgh Business School at Heriot-Watt University for a flexible distance-learning MSc in financial management, which allows accountants fast track entry through credit transfer. ICAEW meanwhile, runs MBA essentials, an MBA "taster course" in the form of an intensive five-day executive development programme designed for accountants and others working in financial and professional service organisations.

CIMA (the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants) has developed for its members an accelerated MSc in auditing, management accounting and information systems with Lille Graduate School of Management in France. This is taught in English at the school's Paris campus.

For those accountants prepared to plunge into a full MBA, ACCA has evolved a specialist fast-track distance-learning MBA with Oxford Brookes Business School, and this is AMBA-accredited. "This qualification takes into account an existing understanding of the finance aspects of an organisation and broadens it out to take in other key business areas such as marketing and international trade," explains Clare Minchington, ACCA's managing director of education, learning and development. "It is primarily delivered online with some residential weekends. The main thing is we wanted to create an MBA which builds on our members' skills and knowledge rather than making them repeat courses. This MBA also attracts people without an accountancy background."

In a competitive marketplace for the best students, attracting "time-poor" qualified accountants can be big business for MBA courses, and schools need to find ways to devise the right mix of courses to attract them. Some, like Saïd, are looking at ways of delivering the MBA product in innovative forms without diluting the strength of the traditional full-time and part-time programmes. A willingness to offer exemptions in the right circumstances and to collaborate with professional bodies in creating new MBA-related courses are essential if schools are to "future-proof" their appeal to accountants with higher management ambitions.

'The diploma lets people dip their toe in the water'

Combining his passion for music with an opportunity to shape the future of London's South Bank arts complex led chartered accountant Ben Davies, 33, to a key financial planning role with the Royal Festival Hall. He is close to completing Saïd Business School's new Diploma in Financial Strategy.

At this stage in my career, I lack the time and money to apply for a full EMBA. However, I felt I could give a valuable boost to my strategic skills by studying for Saïd's one-year diploma.

Teaching is via the Harvard business case study method which mirrors the MBA approach. For me, this has been the best part as it grounds our learning in business realities. This diploma is a new breed of qualification which can be a stepping stone to a full EMBA. For people like me who are not ready to make this commitment, the diploma allows them to dip their toe in the water and find out if they are really suited to business school life.

The fact that you get exemptions if you move on to the Oxford EMBA emphasises the diploma's high-level coverage of finance and strategy.

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