You don't have to put your career on hold with the flexible courses offered by business schools, says Kathy Harvey

The days when acquiring an MBA (Masters in Business Administration) meant putting your life and salary on hold for a year are at an end. Business schools are falling over themselves to offer students as much flexibility as the syllabus allows - whether that means part-time study or the chance to do part of the course half-way across the world.

The days when acquiring an MBA (Masters in Business Administration) meant putting your life and salary on hold for a year are at an end. Business schools are falling over themselves to offer students as much flexibility as the syllabus allows - whether that means part-time study or the chance to do part of the course half-way across the world.

Every combination, from full-time to distance learning, is on offer and even the top international schools are responding to demand for a flexible approach.

London Business School, which remains wedded in principle to the American model of the two-year MBA programme, is now offering students the chance to complete their course in as little as 15 months.

"We've always had a few people who wanted to do this in the past but it was never a publicised option", says David Simpson, senior MBA admissions manager at London Business School. "We still think most people will want to extend their study to 21 months, but we also want to make our MBA attractive to people who may not have considered us because they felt they couldn't commit to a programme of that length." As well as reducing the time out of the workplace, a shorter study period is likely to appeal to people who want the cachet of the London Business School name but feel they can not afford the living costs involved in spending over two years in London.

A dip in the number of applicants for full-time courses may be another reason why business schools are becoming more creative in the way they structure these programmes. Competition for good students is high and not all would-be chief executives or entrepreneurs are willing to give up everything in pursuit of the letters MBA after their names. The answer for many is to combine the MBA with working. "There's definitely a trend from British students to look for part-time options," says Carl Tams, the manager at the Association of MBAs (AMBA) Intelligence unit. "One factor may be that more people are studying for an MBA in their mid-thirties, when taking time out of their career is not always a possibility." AMBA estimates that part-time MBA courses now make up about a third of the market in the UK - with full-time courses attracting more international students

Warwick Business School prides itself on having been among the first to give students the option of choosing or swapping between a variety of study formats. Anyone signing up for the Warwick programme can change from full to part time or distance learning and remain on the same course. The Business School says this means people who change jobs or have children still have the chance to continue with the programme. Managers who are posted abroad can take up the distance-learning option. Durham Business School also takes a flexible approach. Sarah Steele, who now runs her own coaching company, was working as a Human Resources Director for News International in Miami when she decided to sign up for a distance-learning MBA. "I chose Durham because it was so accommodating. I didn't want to put my career on hold at the time, but when I changed my mind and decided to transfer to being a full-time student they couldn't have been more helpful. I was able to slot into the one year programme at Durham in the November."

Business schools point out that studying part-time can be just as much of a drain on the private life as full-time programmes, but realise that the popularity of fitting an MBA around a career is likely to continue. Tanaka Business School at Imperial College, London, offers its MBA in several formats, but the Principal, Professor David Begg, says flexibility is about more than time tabling. "Part time MBAs are now seen as equally valid as full-time programmes. The MBA is more flexible and in touch with the needs of students and employers. Students also want hands-on experience and we offer them the chance to get their hands dirty on a real commercial project."

The trend is for part-time courses to be structured in modules of anything from three days to two weeks, rather than evenings. This probably reflects the longer working hours of managers, who may find it hard to attend a course which starts, for example, at 7pm. Cranfield University School of Management has been running its executive course since 1981 and saw it grow in popularity throughout the Nineties, reaching a peak in applications in 2001. The school currently has 80 students on the course, though not all of them follow the same timetable. UK-based students tend to opt for the weekend format, which includes four one-week residential sessions. The modular option - involving six week-long residentials each year over two years, attracts more managers who work abroad.

Even distance-learning MBAs, like the one run by the Open University, offer the chance for people to meet up in study groups or residential weekends. There is a recognition that, while students like the flexibility of part-time study, they also want the networking and team work offered to people on full-time courses. Business schools are also forming alliances abroad in a bid to give themselves a marketing advantage with applicants who want an international profile. Manchester Business School and Cranfield both run exchange programmes with schools abroad and students on the Cranfield scheme can use their term at Lyon Business School in France to qualify with an MBA from both institutions.

Dr Steve Seymour, who directs the executive part-time MBA at Ashridge, says student demand is driving the changes in many MBA courses. "People are increasingly keen to make sure they can apply their knowledge in unfamiliar situations." Students on the course visit South Africa for an international project, and there are plans to go to China and India. "These are the places people want to go, so we have responded. We are being more flexible and offering things we didn't do five or six years ago." This approach is, he says, also driven by the companies which sponsor MBA students on courses like the one at Ashridge. "We tailor assignments so that sponsoring organisations feel they are getting something back from the investment immediately." No business school can be completely flexible, he argues, but most are now doing all they can to keep good students. "There has to be boundaries and some things aren't negotiable. But a couple of years ago we had a student who had to go out to Iraq. We managed to re-arrange lecture sessions for him on his return. After all, he couldn't be expected to take his books with him."