Business schools are competing for students by offering increasingly varied modes of study, says Hilary Wilce

In recent years, MBA programmes have drawn flak from critics who allege that management cannot be studied, only learned by doing. But the distinction is growing increasingly blurred as programmes become ever more practical.

Today's courses set students real-life tasks, and tie modules closely to the working world. At the same time, business schools are choosing their leaders from corporate life, not from academia, and introducing more flexibility into how their students can study. They realise that busy applicants no longer always want to set aside long stretches of time for full-time study.

"It is a question of being able to step on the gas, or take your foot off it," says Julia Tyler, associate dean of the MBA programme at London Business School (LBS). "We now allow our students to complete the two-year programme in 15 to 18 months if they want, which can be very appealing to someone who wants to take up an internship. Mature professionals are perfectly able to make choices about how they study.

"Business schools say there's a continuing trend for people to want to take their MBA part-time, by distance learning, or other flexible means of study," says Jeanette Purcell, chief executive of the London-based Association of MBAs (AMBA). "That's an ideal way of ensuring an immediate way for people to apply their new knowledge and skills back in the workplace."

This September, LBS demonstrates its flexibility with a 16-month executive MBA programme, to be taught in Dubai in the first year, with electives to follow at London Business School's Regent's Park campus.

Business schools are also putting experienced hands at their helms. LBS has recently appointed Robin Buchanan, as dean, from a leading management consultancy, following in the steps of INSEAD, which last year appointed a consultant as its new head. Meanwhile Cass Business School has appointed Richard Gillingwater, former chairman of the Government's Shareholder Executive, as dean. Gillingwater has had a long career in banking and points out that the City contributes more to the UK's economy than manufacturing. "As the City's business school, Cass has a very important role to play in helping to ensure the continued success of the City through the provision of teaching and research of the very highest quality."

Learning is becoming more hands-on. At Henley Management College, the full-time executive MBA programme is being re-launched with 40 per cent of the total assessment based on consultancy-type work engagements. Out have gone traditional assignments. In have come tasks such as designing and staging a one-day conference, producing a video, or presenting an entrepreneurial idea to a Dragons' Den-style panel (see page IV). "Businesses told us they had plenty of the right skills, just not the right people," says director of studies Marc Day.

"The MBA market is healthier as a number of MBA providers are responding well to the real needs of business," says Kai Peters, dean of Ashridge business school. "Business is increasingly based on knowledge and service, so managers need to develop their understanding of softer subjects such as the organisational and personal dynamics of an organisation as well as the harder technical business expertise of finance and IT."

Programmes also have to be kept up to date to compete in a tough international market. "It is more buoyant than it has been for years and a major driver is India, where since 1999 we have seen a 53 per cent increase in the number of programmes offered," says Julia Tyler. "We've already seen this happen in China, so now we've got the Tiger versus the Dragon. The Tiger is on the rise, but the Dragon still has a fiery breath."

However, Britain still attracts - and welcomes - top talent. The Judge Business School in Cambridge is seeing more students turning down leading schools in the US to study in the UK. Dr Simon Learmount, director of marketing and admissions, says: "London seems to have been more successful than any other major city in positioning itself as an international business centre."

The Government has recognised this by allowing MBA graduates from 50 top business schools - 10 of them UK schools - to work in the UK for up to 12 months after graduation. However, the Association of Business Schools considers the list unhelpful.

"Obviously schools that are on it are pleased, but it does the majority of British business schools no favours," says Jonathan Slack, chief executive. "It disenfranchises many of those schools who are already competing very successfully in the international market."

A growing number of scholarships are helping to widen participation. This year the Michael Smurfit School of Business in Dublin announced 11 new scholarships, including six regional ones to attract high-flying students from all parts of the world.

Meanwhile, the London Business School says that last year's MBA graduates have done better than any of their predecessors, with 96 per cent in jobs within three months, on a median starting salary of £58,000 - a 79 per cent rise on their pre-MBA salaries.

'Doing an MBA shows you are committed to change'

Thomas Howarth, 30, came out of the army intent on a future in banking or the corporate world and thinks that his MBA at the Judge Business School in Cambridge is the most efficient way of making such a life change.

I was a captain in the Royal Dragoon Guards and I loved my time in the army, but I just didn't see myself doing it in the long term. I believe that doing an MBA shows people that you are committed to change and self-development.

It's not only the academic qualification, but the demonstration of your commitment, the networks you become part of, and the peer group you are with that is so important. Also, it puts you in that pool. A group of us have just had two and a half hours with a director of Lehman Brothers. You wouldn't get that if you weren't in this world.

My MBA is going to cost about £45,000 and HSBC gave me an unsecured loan at a decent rate, on the reputation of the programme I was taking. If a retail bank, which is highly risk adverse, buys into this qualification you can bet it is worth doing.