Personal services give courses modern edge

Private business schools are providing some truly innovative MBAs, says Stephen Hoare

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The Independent Online

Helen Walters, venture manager for E.On, has just completed a 16-day advanced management programme at Ashridge Business School. The course began with a 360° appraisal from other delegates and centred on developing practical solutions to people's management issues and personal leadership style. "I found focused leadership development without the academic context of an MBA," says Walters.

The course ended with a set of outdoor bonding activities. Says Walters, "We faced leadership challenges such as crossing a rope bridge balancing in pairs and swinging across an imaginary ravine without spilling water from a bucket. You got instant feedback."

Set up as a charitable foundation, Ashridge is a private, not-for-profit business school. It runs a full-time and a part-time executive MBA as well as open and customised executive education. Innovation is part of its life blood and right now leadership programmes are in vogue. "The advantage of a not-for-profit is we don't have shareholders who want to take money out of the business and we can respond quicker to market changes because we are not accountable to shareholders or to government funding mechanisms," says Ashridge CEO, Kai Peters.

As a result, the Ashridge MBA and its executive courses are aimed at the upper end of the market. The cost of its full-time MBA is £30,000 and the advanced management programme (AMP) is £16,950. "We have 25 students on our full-time MBA and we focus on behavioural and leadership issues. You can't do that in big classes," says Peters.

Private business schools are steering the MBA market, using their degree-awarding powers to create customer-focused offerings. The Coalition Government has said that it wants to see the emergence of a healthy private sector in higher education. Many believe that this fast-growing sector is better capable of offering innovative solutions such as the two-year undergraduate degree. Ashridge is joined by BPP Business School and Buckingham Business School, part of Buckingham University, which is launching its first pre-experience MBA in January.

But being private does not always ensure a business school's success. Henley Management College famously did a deal with the University of Reading in August 2008 under which the University took over Henley's assets including Greenlands, a mansion by the Thames, and a portfolio of MBAs and executive short courses. The merger enabled Henley to meet its sizeable staff pension liabilities, save its listed building and invest in new courses. "The deal gave us a lot more resources to invest in physical infrastructure and in talent," says Hugh Evans, the director of executive education.

Worldwide, the online MBA market is dominated by private sector players such as University of Phoenix, Laureate Online Education and Strayer University, all of which run a model of fixed campuses and modularised MBAs supported by e-learning.

University of Phoenix, part of the Apollo Group, has 400,000 students worldwide, and about a third are studying for the MBA. The MBA faculty teaches face-to-face as well as through threaded discussion groups online. "We are the biggest producer of online MBAs in the US," says Dr Bill Berry, director of the school of business at Phoenix.

With an iPad application just launched, Phoenix appeals to working adults who find it difficult to attend business school part time on a regular basis but who are prepared to study in short bursts. "We work to ensure our students can access our systems from anywhere. This is part of the Phoenix heritage, as we were set up to widen participation to students from poorer backgrounds who never had the opportunity," says Berry.

Phoenix is owned by the Apollo Group, which in 2009 acquired BPP Business School in the UK. Marketing its MBA for £16,500, BPP is bankrolled by Apollo and has plans to expand into the areas of health and education. "We have linked with employers to offer an innovative MBA programme that has already won two industry awards. The MBA with law firm Simmons & Simmons offers a tailored MBA to trainees working with the law firm's client base," says BPP's chief executive, Carl Lygo.

When the Buckingham Business School opens its doors to the first cohort of MBA students its aim is to create a niche player in the MBA market with employability at the core. "We have always placed high value on small group teaching and we will continue to work hard to ensure our students are both very satisfied and employable," says the school's dean, Dr Jane Tapsell. Buckingham's MBA will continue to build on the university's research reputation in enterprise, finance and investment.