MBAs: Back in business

Applications for MBA courses are up, and many more women are enrolling, says Steve McCormack
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The Independent Online

Although you won't find many feet resting complacently on desks in business schools' MBA offices around the world, it seems the collective jitters provoked by the applications slump of a couple of years ago have well and truly receded.

The recovery that began to establish itself 12 months ago now seems to have bedded down across the board, and the MBA once again looks comfortable in its position as the pre-eminent qualification for people aspiring to senior positions in the business world.

"The signs are very positive," says Jeanette Purcell, chief executive of the London-based Association of MBAs (AMBA), reflecting strong anecdotal evidence from accredited schools and their recent MBA graduates.

"There was a lot of nervousness two years ago, but now we are back on more solid territory. Although we'll never see the boom we saw at the end of the 1990s, we are in to a period of steady growth again."

The view is echoed by most people running MBA programmes, among them Julia Tyler, at London Business School (LBS), who comments: "As far as people wanting to come and do an MBA is concerned, we're well recovered from the dip of two or three years ago, and the trend across the recruitment market place is one of good news."

The positive mood at LBS has been underlined by the presence of cement mixers and building dust in recent months, as the school has spent more than £3m adding a new floor to its central London premises, providing a new computer suite, study rooms and social space for the MBA class.

But you'd never guess it from the outside. The entire extension has been accommodated in the roof space behind the columns and cupolas of the listed building on the edge of Regents Park: the "biggest loft-conversion in history", according to Tyler.

A cohort of 310 new students recently started a full-time MBA at LBS, with a female quotient at 28 per cent, sharply up on last year's 23 per cent, and the proportion from outside Europe up to around 60 per cent: both trends mirrored across the MBA landscape.

A record 75 recruiting companies, the majority from industry, will be at the LBS campus competing for graduates for this autumn's milk round.

The picture is similarly optimistic at Ashridge, in Hertfordshire, where Narendra Laljani, director of qualification programmes, talks of a "surge" in demand for places on both full-time and part-time MBA courses.

He, too, highlights a growing interest from women applicants, who are, he says, "looking for an MBA to help them break the glass ceiling". Ashridge's existing full-time MBA cohort already has a substantial 40 per cent female element. And he also reports an increase in mid-career professionals taking an MBA: 70 per cent of the current part-time class, and 50 per cent of the full-timers, are over 35.

Across the Atlantic, the picture looks similarly healthy. At Tuck School of Business, in Dartmouth, New Hampshire, last year's modest five per cent increase in applications has swollen to an impressive 30 per cent rise this year.

Recent findings by the Graduate Management Admission Council (Gmac), based in the US, concur. The 2006 survey of its member schools around the world showed a broad majority experiencing increasing volumes of applications.

"There is a brilliant bloom on the MBA rose," says David Wilson, Gmac's CEO. "The demand for places around the world is rebounding."

And the Gmac returns also show a continuing trend of growing internationalisation. Three-quarters of US MBA programmes said applications from abroad rose in 2006. And among schools outside the United States, 62 per cent saw international applications increase, up from 37 per cent in 2005.

Tuck is among the US schools reporting this phenomenon, with 34 per cent of MBA students coming from outside the country, up from 28 per cent the previous year--a product in part of Tuck's specific outreach initiatives in Europe, India, and Latin America.

This globalisation of MBA student bodies, though, no longer raises many eyebrows in the UK, where most schools have long boasted richly multinational cohorts, with accents that tell of origins in the former Communist part of Europe, India, China and South America a common feature in British classrooms for many years now.

And if there's a third dominant trend jostling for recognition alongside the female and international factors, it must be the expanding and ever-morphing flexibility of modes of study, driven as much by student demand as by course designers.

For several years, many schools have offered part-time and distance learning methods of study, in addition to their "core" full-time programme, a development that made an MBA a practical possibility for people whose family or working lives precluded full-time participation.

Now, elements of flexibility are appearing within individual programmes. For example, the full-time MBA at LBS can be achieved within anything between 15 and 21 months.

"We want to give students the option, during their course, to either work harder, or take a term off," explains Tyler.

Similarly, at Warwick Business School, MBA students are allowed to mix their mode of study. So, some modules might be taken full-time and others part-time or by distance learning, with pauses in between if necessary. Students have eight years in which to complete all components.

Examples abound of other business schools demonstrating responsiveness to students' needs. James Griffiths joined a part-time MBA programme at Durham Business School, intending to mix work with study.

When work plans did not turn out as expected, he was able to switch into the full-time programme without any disruption. What's more, he put some of the "down time" that opened up to good effect. He joined Durham's Caribbean MBA, run in Barbados in conjunction with Ernst and Young, for a period, enabling him to complete one module of his full-time MBA and get some experience of a business environment away from the North East. He's due to graduate in January.

It might appear a roundabout way of acquiring an MBA. But it typifies the customised approach increasingly on offer from schools aware that students are awash with choices.

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