MBAs vs Masters courses: Youth vs experience

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The Independent Online

An MBA has traditionally been seen as a must-have for any ambitious manager trying to climb the corporate ladder. But it's no longer the only business Masters available. Now, graduates can choose from a range of programmes that they can join straight from university or with very little management experience.

The Association of MBAs (AMBA) accredited the first batch of these "pre-experience" Masters a year ago in response to worries that, in a highly competitive marketplace, it was difficult for students and employers to assess the quality of degree qualifications. The list now covers an exotic range of schools, including a handful of UK institutions, several in France and two in Russia (Mirbis Moscow International Higher Business School and Sinerghia Economics and Finance Institute).

But with a wealth of programmes to choose from, what are the differences between an MBA and a pre-experience Masters in management (Pemm)? The most obvious is that students are much younger on a Pemm. At Oxford Brookes University Business School, where the MA in management and MSc in international strategic management are both AMBA-accredited, the average age is 23.

This means that, unlike on an MBA, students can't share their own experience of management. John Hillard, director of taught postgraduate programmes at Leeds University Business School, whose MSc in management is accredited, says this is the most glaring difference between a Pemm and an MBA.

"Although the syllabuses might look similar, the whole point of an MBA is to allow the student to reflect on their experience. Recent graduates just don't have that experience to reflect on."

For many managers, the chance to network with other high flyers from the corporate world and to learn from different sectors are the main reasons for doing an MBA. It's also why they or their sponsor are prepared to pay something like twice as much for an MBA as a Pemm.

Their lack of hands-on experience means that Pemm students have to focus on case studies, rather than pooling first-hand knowledge, even though the teaching staff are usually the same. (AMBA only accredits Pemms at schools which already offer accredited MBAs.) "It's virtually the same faculty," Hillard says. "We don't provide the Pemm students with the 'B' team. We try to provide them with the skills so that they can hit the ground running."

Schools point to anecdotal evidence that a Pemm can boost a graduate's earning power. Of course, this usually happens with an MBA too, but Hillard says there's a sense that studying for an MBA is a "defensive" move; at a certain level you have to do it if you want to be in the top stream. Students usually choose a Pemm, on the other hand, when they are still open-minded about what course their career might take.

However, Pemms are not just for youngsters. Tony Gibbs, programme director for the MSc in international strategic management at Oxford Brookes, predicts that older managers who don't want to commit themselves to the cut and thrust of an MBA will apply for a Pemm.

Pemm programmes in the UK have so far attracted more overseas students than local applicants. Opinion is divided over whether this will change with the students paying more for their first degrees.They may want to start earning to pay off their debts and soon as possible.

Some business schools believe that, as more people study for a degree in the UK, graduates will need a further qualification to set them apart in the job market. A Pemm might do just that.

"Students are looking for something that gives them a step up in the job market," according to Tony Sims, course director of the MA in business management at Kingston Business School.

Kingston, Aston Business School and Hong Kong Polytechnic University became the first institutions to receive accreditation for their Doctor of Business Administration this summer. The DBA is the only other qualification that AMBA accredits.

Although the Pemm's reliance on recent graduates is closer to the American model, few business schools expect a rush of applicants from the other side of the Atlantic. Instead, they see greater competition from Europe.

According to Dr Robert Owen, director of accreditation services at AMBA, the Bologna Accord, which aims to create a single system of degrees within Europe, provided much of the driving force behind the move to accredit all postgraduate management degrees. He believes that the recent round of accreditations should make it easier for every student - from the recent graduate to the committed academic - to find their way through the maze of business Masters.

'Few students have much experience, but they have the right attitude'

Ravishankar-Bhande, 25, from Pune in India, was working with the Overseas Education Consultancy when he heard about the MSc in international business management at Manchester Metropolitan Business School. He has just started the course.

My degree was in engineering and I'd been thinking about studying abroad for some time. I've been working in graphic design and I'm going to concentrate on marketing communication next semester. I already know something about media promotion.

The course costs me £8,500 plus about £6,000 a year living expenses, but it's worth it for the multicultural experience. That's what you don't get so much in India. There are students from Italy, France, Germany, Malaysia; it's been very interesting sharing what we've learnt from our education systems.

At my previous university, I was handling the magazine committee and cultural group, so I'm used to dealing with people. Few of the people on the course have much experience, but they have the right attitude. They range in age from 21 to their early thirties.

I have a friend on the course, so we're supporting each other. I think that's quite important. At the end I'm hoping to start my own advertising business in India.

Meanwhile, I'm enjoying it here in Manchester. I write songs and compose music, and I love cooking. My speciality? Pav Bhaaji. It's a famous Indian vegetarian dish.

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