MBAs: The benefits of flexibility

Business schools have adapted to the changing needs of students, says Steve McCormack, and are back in good health
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The Independent Online

"So there wasn't quite so much to worry about after all!" You won't hear anyone actually use those words, but, a couple of years on from the pronounced trough in applications, the message emerging from MBA admissions offices is pretty uniform. Interest is back up, cohorts are growing again, and the accountants aren't sweating quite so profusely.

At the Association of MBAs (AMBA), the turbulence of recent years has been put down far more to the effects of changed attitudes and priorities within the pool of potential MBA students than to any life-threatening blow to the viability of the market.

"What I keep saying is that I'm quite clear the MBA market is not in decline," maintains AMBA's Chief Executive Jeanette Purcell.

"It is adapting to a changing market. Flexible forms of study - distance, part-time and modular - are all growing, and I think this reflects the future."

This assertion is certainly supported by AMBA's figures of MBA graduates from its accredited schools in the UK over the last decade. While these do show some sharp peaks and troughs, the overall picture is one of steady growth.

For example, in 2002 there was a 17 per cent drop in British full-time students graduating with an MBA, but this was compensated for by increases - in that year and in following years - in foreign full-timers, and part-timers and distance learners from home and abroad.

And the figures for the last two years show consolidation and returning stability across the board. In 2005, for the first time in a decade, numbers of every category of graduate, regardless of nationality or mode of study, went up by around 1 per cent.

While most individual schools echo this central message, each has experienced at least one of the factors that contribute to the new landscape.

At Henley Management College, on the banks of the Thames, staff have become aware of increasing numbers of students keen on studying for an MBA while staying at work.

"The MBA has been through some rough times over recent years but the worst certainly appears to be over," says Lynne Stone, business development director for open MBA programmes at Henley. "The rocketing popularity of the distance-learning MBA is the most striking indicator, and there's also been very keen interest in the modular MBA," she adds.

A similar trend is reported at Manchester Business School, where within an overall 50 per cent rise in applications this year, there's a particularly strong field for the part-time and distance programmes.

MBA programme director, Professor Jikyeong Kang, sees this as partially reflective of the strong economy: "During periods of prosperity we often see these applications rise as the job market picks up and becomes more stable."

At Durham Business School, the faculty has noticed the desire among growing numbers of students to maintain flexibility over their mode of study, with mid-course movement between full-time, part-time and modular courses not uncommon.

"We encourage this," explains the dean, Tony Antoniou. "It enables us to maintain the quality of all of our cohorts and fit in with a more discerning applicant pool."

This migration of British-based businessmen and women towards more flexible modes of study once threatened to leave a yawning gap on some full-time MBA courses. But, after some hairy times in admissions offices, most schools report healthier application levels for full-time courses, fuelled mainly by an increase in applications from overseas students.

At London Business School (LBS), for example, the proportion of British students on the full-time course has been steadily creeping down, but has now settled at between 9 and 15 per cent. In their place have come students from all over the world, but with one noticeable recent surge from the East.

"The level of applications this year is significantly up," says David Simpson, senior marketing and admissions manager at LBS, "and the rise is made up mainly by an increase in applications from India, where we're seeing very strong and capable candidates."

This is a phenomenon mirrored across the Atlantic, where full-time cohorts have, traditionally, been less geographically mixed than those in Europe.

At Tuck Business School, on the campus of Dartmouth College, in New Hampshire, 28 per cent of the full-time cohort of 240 are from outside the US. This proportion is likely to rise, given pronounced increases in applicants from Korea, India, China and Mexico.

Tuck is also trying to increase the mix further by wooing more students from Western Europe, offering scholarships starting at around £2,000 to 12 students a year.

Small adjustments like these are happening everywhere, reflecting increased sophistication among schools and students alike. The MBA world has changed, but the brand continues to enjoy rude health.

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