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."

Voices
Homeless Veterans charity auction: Cook with Angela Hartnett and Neil Borthwick at Merchants Tavern
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Sport
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
News
Stacey Dooley was the only woman to be nominated in last month’s Grierson awards
mediaClare Balding and Davina McCall among those overlooked for Grierson awards
PROMOTED VIDEO
Voices
Joseph Kynaston Reeves arguing with Russell Brand outside the RBS’s London offices on Friday
voicesDJ Taylor: The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a worker's rant to Russell Brand
News
Twitchers see things differently, depending on their gender
scienceNew study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
News
Xander van der Burgt, at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
scienceA Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

Ashdown Group: Trainee / Graduate Helpdesk Analyst

£20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly reputable business is looking to rec...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Software Developer

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Join a fast growing software co...

Guru Careers: Graduate Account Executive / Digital Account Executive

£20k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Graduate / Digital Account Exe...

Guru Careers: Junior Designer / Design Graduate

£18k: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Junior Designer / Design Graduate to join...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick