Open University Business School celebrates 25 years by taking its MBA into China, India and South America

A few weeks before an Open University Business School course starts, a fat parcel arrives at the student's home, full of reading material. It can come as a shock.

Chris Martin, 36, from Sandwich in Kent, remembers the start of his studies all too well. "I hadn't written an essay since GCSE English at 16, so trying to write one in my thirties was a nightmare," he says.

Martin's background was in science – he works in business development with Pfizer – and that, he found, came in useful for the quantitative aspects of the course. Like many students, he completed a certificate in business administration with the school before progressing to the MBA proper. This modular process allows anyone, no matter what their academic background, to take the MBA.

Families, Martin says, are the unsung heroes of open learning courses. "We decided I'd work Monday to Thursday, not at weekends. But all my hobbies and sports – I sail dinghies – went by the way for the three years of the degree. I'd spend the day at work, get home around 7pm, have tea, start again at 8pm and work sometimes till 11pm."

Undeterred by the essays, he persevered, and recently had the distinction of being named the school's 20,000th MBA graduate in the year that the business school reached the grand age of 25. Although it took its first business undergraduates in 1984, the MBA was not launched until 1989 and quickly became the biggest in the market.

"It was probably the pioneer for open-learning and distance-learning approaches," says Jeanette Purcell, chief executive of the Association of MBAs, "and the number of students who have passed through its courses has been phenomenal – good students who otherwise would not have considered an MBA. It really has been quite revolutionary."

Indeed, as the school's third and current dean, James Fleck, points out, the MBA ticks all the boxes when it comes to what other institutions call an executive MBA.

Fleck, a Scot with a background in artificial intelligence, took over at the school's Milton Keynes headquarters four years ago. He talks not of distance but of "nearness learning", arguing that communicating by text or phone is a more direct experience than listening to a lecture in a crowded hall.

"I was blown away by the whole concept when I came here," he says. "The learning experience is designed not by one professor but by a team of people creating the materials. Then there are around 1,000 tutors – 300 of them in Russia – helping the students. It's very intense."

Any part-time degree allows students to carry on working while they do it, and Fleck sees a great advantage in this. "I'm a windsurfer," he says. "And management is like windsurfing. You can't teach it in a classroom and expect people just to do it – yet most business schools think they can. You have to practise it in a whole range of conditions." And as his students do that, he says with satisfaction, they draw their colleagues into their studies too.

He is not, however, resting on his laurels. Though it sprang from the Open University, the school is now largely self-funded, and has big expansion plans. It is spending more than £3m on revising its MBA.

What that means is going beyond markets established some time ago – Russia, South Africa, Ethiopia – and taking the Open University Business School MBA into China, India and South America.

Some might say that the school is a little late into the global market, which has been flooded with competitors in the past 20 years. These days many MBAs are taken completely online. IBM, for example, has just partnered with the Boston-based Northeastern University to provide an online MBA course for its Indian employees.

"Our marketing people are identifying the demands," says Fleck. "We've brought in experts from other universities. Basically we're responding to the global nature of business, building in ideas, practices and case studies from other countries. Then we have to go for scale to recoup the investment. It's an industrial model."

In this market, will that fat parcel of literature still be relevant? Chris Martin, for one, thinks so: "I enjoy learning by reading," he says. "I like scribbling in the margins."

Others are happy not to, however. A completely online version of the Open University MBA, designed for the disabled and those unable to attend learning centres, exists and is increasingly popular, says Vyvien Pettler, who supervises the OU tutors. "We probably have between 400 and 500 students already taking the MBA online."

At the moment, that version depends on downloading PDFs. "But delivery methods change all the time," says Pettler. "It used to be television. Now it's DVD, podcasts and online conferencing." Fleck points out that half the world's population has access to a mobile phone. However you study, perseverance is vital – and here the OU, with its strong student support network, has a distinct selling point at the moment. Where other online learners drop out in droves, it can point to MBA completion rates (in 2006-7) of 74 per cent.

"At the end of all this," says Fleck, "we want people to give an in-depth idea of how the ideas work – we call it mastery, since, after all, this is a Masters degree. A key element in the mix is the residential school, a very valuable networking opportunity."

Chris Martin is proud to take his place among the school's alumni, the biggest such network anywhere in the world. "The OU Business School is a broad church," he says. "Perhaps I didn't get exactly the networking experience I might have got with a full-time degree – but I did meet some really interesting people, the kind I never would have encountered otherwise."

Was it worth it? Yes, he says. In particular, an elective course called Creativity, Innovation and Change gave him a completely new way of looking at things.

"For example, I now use mind maps every week at work. Being able to reduce quite complicated situations to a cartoon is a really good way of giving people a picture, something to respond to."

Life and Style
Divers at Bouldnor Cliff underwater site in the Solent off the Isle of Wight, where the silt sample containing the einkorn DNA was found
life
Life and Style
A monstrous idea? Body transplants might no longer be science fiction
Science An Italian neurosurgeon believes so - and it's not quite as implausible as it sounds, says Steve Connor
Sport
Demba Ba (right) celebrates after Besiktas win on penalties
footballThere was no happy return to the Ataturk Stadium, where the Reds famously won Champions League
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
arts + ents
News
Mia Freedman, editorial director of the Mamamia website, reads out a tweet she was sent.
arts + ents
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
The write stuff: masters of story-telling James Joyce, left, and Thomas Hardy
arts + ents...begging to differ, John Walsh can't even begin to number the ways
Sport
Jose Mourinho on Sky Sports
footballEXCLUSIVE COLUMN Paul Scholes: It was not a leg-breaking tackle, as the Chelsea manager had claimed
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

Ashdown Group: Graduate Graphic Designer - Peterborough - £18,000

£22000 - £23000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Graduate Graphic Designer...

Ashdown Group: Graduate Developer - Cambridgeshire - £23,000

£22000 - £23000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Graduate Front-End Develo...

Ashdown Group: Graduate Application Support Analyst

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A global leader operating...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: Trainee Recruitment C...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower