Business schools are finding it difficult to recruit students to their full-time MBA programmes. It's not just the price tag - which can be upwards of £18,000 for a 12-month course - that puts people off, but also the living costs that can deter would-be students.

It's little wonder that business schools are offering more flexible learning packages, which allow students to combine their studies with work. Part-time and distance learning programmes have been with us for several decades but some business schools, among them Edinburgh University and Warwick Business School, are now going further to suit students' financial, work and family commitments.

Edinburgh's Management School has launched a modular MBA programme that allows students to study full-time for one semester and then take a year off before embarking on the second semester. Or they can do two semesters on the trot and then take a two-year break. There are endless permutations on this theme as long as the MBA is completed within four years. Re-induction phases are built into the modules to help students make the transition from work to full-time study.

It's a solution that suits both student and employer, says programme director Simon Earp. The student isn't out of the workplace for a year at a time but still gets to benefit from full-time immersion in the MBA.

Warwick Business School is also rethinking the structure of its flexible MBA programmes, with students able to switch back and forth between the part-time and distance learning options. Warwick is also taking another look at its full-time programme to see where it can build in more flexibility.

"We haven't got it perfect yet," says Professor John McGee, the associate dean. "We'll be rolling out more flexibility in 2007 and we're piecing together the operational details right now."

This flexibility carries a cost for institutions, which must provide extra administrative and academic support as far-flung students pick and mix how, when and where they study.

"We've built up to this slowly so we haven't faced the fixed costs of starting from scratch," says McGee of Warwick Business School. "Once you have a schedule of modules running through the year, it's a question of how many people you can put through."

The matter of "throughput" is at the heart of the new flexibility drive. In the quest for bums on seats - albeit virtual seats - flexible learning options enable business schools to satisfy student demand and open their doors to those who might never otherwise consider signing up for an MBA.

Distance learning, for example, tends to attract more women onto MBA programmes, which remain, stubbornly, a largely male preserve. Over one-third of the students on the Open University's MBA programme are female, double the proportion of some traditional schools. It seems the flexibility of the OU programme, which mixes distance learning with residential weekends and gives students up to seven years to complete, suits professional women who may be juggling job, travel, family and studies.

It's not just women who are attracted by flexible learning. There are many professionals who, in an increasingly fast-paced and competitive work environment, are reluctant to return to the books full-time.

Christine Maclennan, a former project manager who now runs an IT consultancy, admits she was anxious about the costs of a full-time MBA and her employability on graduation. Post-MBA - she graduates from the OU in September - Christine acknowledges those fears were probably unfounded. "Ironically, now I would be confident about taking a year out because I know my value and know I can get a job," she says, praising the OU's MBA.

But distance learning is no easy option. "An MBA is a lot of work and if you also have two kids and a job it's a big, big commitment, however flexible it is," says one business school insider.

Yonca Clark, a business improvement manager at Amec Oil & Gas, agrees. Now in the third year of Warwick's distance learning MBA, Yonca admits she never anticipated such a heavy workload. But the flexibility works very well: despite extensive travel commitments her studies continue uninterrupted via Warwick's online study groups and e-mail support. And she sees another advantage to mixing work with studies. "If you study full time you don't have a chance to apply what you're learning," she says. "But I think about how I can use what I'm learning everyday at work."