The MBA will lose its value if business schools drop the work experience requirement, argue the critics. Peter Brown reports

If you want to get ahead in business, the three magic letters MBA are a kind of shorthand. They tell an employer that you are abreast of finance, marketing and strategy, and that you know how companies work. After all, you have been a manager yourself. Or have you?

Not necessarily. For example, to take a general MBA at Liverpool John Moores University, you need no more than two years' work experience. The course is marketed as "designed to meet the requirements of those new to work". For that reason, however, it is among hundreds of courses not recognised by the Association of MBAs (AMBA), the British accrediting body that requires candidates to have at least three years' experience and likes to see an average, per cohort, of five years.

This requirement is now being tested as the Bologna Accord slowly comes into force. Ratified last year by 40 countries, and designed to harmonise higher education across Europe, it means that graduate students can now be poached. Accordingly, there is a drive to make Masters courses as attractive as possible. One way of doing that is to tempt pre-experience students with the MBA label.

Experience is usually associated with age. One estimate puts the global average age for full-time MBA students at 26-and-a-half, but at the best schools it is higher. At Lancaster University Management School, the youngest MBA student is 25; the oldest is 59. At Warwick Business School, eight years' work experience is the average for the current cohort. Durham Business School is typical of many in requiring at least three years' experience.

Cass Business School has set up a Bologna Task Force to help it to understand the impact the accord will have. "Some business schools, in Germany for example, are blurring the established difference between MBAs and Masters programmes by not clearly defining the level of work experience needed to qualify for each," says Steve Haberman, the deputy dean. "At Cass, our students average nine years' work experience."

It is in France, however, that Bologna is having its most dramatic impact. French management courses, usually taken by people in their early 20s, are rated the best in Europe and are increasingly taught in English. But one school - Essec, based near Paris - has broken ranks by calling its main Masters course an MBA.

The result is that Essec now has 500 MBA students a year, mostly in their early twenties. Its strategy is in direct conflict with that of other prestigious grandes écoles, such as HEC, EM Lyon, ESCP-EAP and Audencia Nantes, whose bespoke MBA courses are taken by people with more experience and are therefore much smaller.

Laurent Bibard, Essec's dean, is unrepentant about his school's "innovative" model. "The situation in France is changing a lot," he says. "Twenty per cent of our students come from abroad. When they leave, their average age is 25 to 26, and they have perhaps two years' experience.

"When they are young, they are much more open-minded. Experience has not yet narrowed them. Younger people are less expensive for companies but more important; they are very flexible. They can adapt to different situations."

Other schools profess not to care. "Essec has always been unconventional. It is a good school. There is room for everyone," says Davide Sola, UK Director of ESCP-EAP, known in London as the European School of Management. His highly-ranked school normally produces around 250-300 Masters graduates a year, aged between 24- and 26-years-old. It reserves the title MBA for a separate course, for which it requires at least three years' experience.

Some might argue that Essec is merely reflecting the scene in America, where many MBA graduates are in their mid-twenties. Behind the scenes in France, however, Essec's emphasis on flexibility is seen as a cynical marketing ploy. "They are the challengers [behind HEC]," says one observer. "And any marketing expert will tell you that challengers have to develop arresting strategies."

"Courses taught to young people without professional experience are like raindrops over the sand," adds Jean-Pierre Helfer, dean of Audencia Nantes School of Management. Helfer is chairman of the French commission for the Accreditation of Business Schools and has a vested interest in uniformity. The full-time Audencia MBA takes around 30 students a year.

"For the best business schools in France, an MBA programme has to be linked with an international standard," he says. "It has to be generalised and it should be post-experience. On average, our MBA students have seven years of professional experience. They have been managers."

And flexibility? "What companies need is simplicity," says Helfer. "We business schools have to give them clear positions, with clear segmentation. If every business school works in a niche, they will all be leaders. But that is not the MBA."

This month's age discrimination legislation is making schools careful about how they advertise for staff, but it has not yet affected their general strategies. Indeed, some schools specialise in very experienced candidates.

At Ashridge, in Hertfordshire, the average age now stands at 35 for the full-time and 37 for the part-time MBA. "We have 300 years of business experience on the student side in the classroom, and it would be foolish not to leverage that," says Narendra Laljani, director of qualification programmes at Ashridge. The debate seems likely to continue.

'I started job-hunting and already have five interviews'

At 59, and after a career in the Army and in publishing, Ian Hunter (above), from Sutton Courtney, Berkshire, has just finished a year's MBA course at Lancaster University Management School. He is looking for work in business development or transformation.

There were 63 of us on the course, most in their mid-30s, and some more experienced than others. I wasn't put out at being shoulder to shoulder with youngsters, and they were certainly bright and open-minded. The less experienced clearly lacked confidence at the start, but there was a lot of classwork to help with that. The exchange of ideas and experience is one of the biggest learning aids of an MBA, particularly in a class as multicultural mine.

The course encourages you to be adaptable. I'm much more flexible now than I was 10 years ago. Students in their early 20s may understand the methodology but will have little experience of people.

The course has done what I wanted; it has updated me and given me a toolkit and a broader, stronger profile. I've just started job-hunting and have four or five interviews already.