Private schools take on the public providers

Is it best to go to an institution that's part of a university or a stand-alone one?

They are based in the City of London, close to the global centre of high finance. Yet in a crowded MBA marketplace, can London's privately run business schools, London School of Business and Finance (LSBF) and BPP Business School, compete head-on with long-established public sector schools attached to our universities? The newcomers' bullish response is to be super-sensitive to customer-led demand for a flexible, innovative approach to how, when and where MBA students can learn and interact with fellow students and their teachers.

For hard-pressed business people enrolling for a part-time MBA, combining work, study and a personal life is a tough balancing act. The LSBF, established in 2003, has come up with a novel offering to reflect this struggle: the 8 Weekend MBA has a catchy title, but can a meaningful learning experience be delivered in such a concentrated time-frame?

Valery Kisilevsky, group managing director of LSBF, explains: "This is not a slimmed-down version of an MBA, trying to condense a two-year programme into eight weekends. It is designed to be much more flexible than a traditional part-time MBA, and offers a way of studying that fits well with the needs of today's business professionals. People in the 24-32 age range today are used to doing everything via their computers, and the 8 Weekend MBA includes a large web-based study component with many hours of online video lectures available on demand. But our research shows that they also want the opportunity to interact with fellow students and faculty face-to-face. This led us to think about how this dual approach could be developed academically. We believe this MBA brings the best of both worlds – the flexibility of the online delivery method augmented by the chance to challenge yourself against your peers and faculty members."

"Students are expected to prepare themselves fully before they come into the group environment," adds LSBF dean, Roy Butcher. "Even when working remotely, the technology will enable them to engage frequently with each other and with our faculty. The weekends themselves will each cover a core MBA module.

"They will be intensive, challenging and highly detailed. Students will get to practise the skills and knowledge they have acquired via the online route in the group context. In the process, they will find out a great deal about themselves as well as acquire new knowledge."

The 8 Weekend MBA will have four intakes a year, and the face-to-face weekends will be delivered in London initially, with the possibility of future sessions taking place in Singapore, Hong Kong and Dubai.

BPP Business School is the other private MBA provider on the City scene. Owned by the US company Apollo Group, it has a pedigree in training professionals in law and accountancy. BPP's own recently launched MBA has evolved from the tailored MBAs they run for City law firms. Delivered from a campus next to The Gherkin in the heart of the City, its aim is to offer more flexible study methods than those of its public-sector rivals. As Katie Best, director of MBA programmes, says: "BPP students have the option of full-time or part-time face-to-face teaching or online study, with the chance to alternate between these methods from week to week."

One of the hallmarks of their new MBA is that students will not be "talked at" for more than 15 minutes. "We think the time and the place for the lecture has gone. It is simply not the most successful way for people to learn," says Best. "We feel we must provide highly interactive classes with group exercises predominating." Another innovation, as she sees it, is that subject areas are integrated in a way that best represents the real world. "Our markets and marketing module allows students to learn about economics and marketing together. These subjects are closely linked, but most schools teach them separately."

Can these private players match the breadth and depth of university-based schools where the MBA course is underpinned by academic research? Kisilevsky makes no apology for the fact that his school is teaching-focused, rather than research-focused. "Although research-active faculty are found at LSBF, teaching is what we do best. We believe research is generally best conducted within institutions which specialise in it."

Cass Business School, part of City University London, is also based within the capital's financial district. It views its strong research bias as making an invaluable contribution to the quality of the MBA course. Professor Meziane Lasfer, associate dean of research and knowledge transfer, says: "Our lecturers are given time to research their area of expertise, which means they know what is going on in the market right now and can share their knowledge with our students on practical as well as theoretical levels. If a lecturer doesn't do research, I don't believe they have the full picture of what is out there. Students who get the better jobs are much more likely to be graduates of schools which conduct research. Employers recognise students who attend these public institutions reach a higher level because the lecturers are at the top of their game."

LSBF may be keen to differentiate itself from university business schools such as Cass, but this privately owned school has been astute enough to form a strategic partnership with France's Grenoble Graduate School of Business. The triple-accredited Grenoble MBA courses are also taught at LSBF's London campus and their 8 Weekend MBA is validated by the University of Wales. BPP, meanwhile, has been awarded "university college" status by the Government and has degree-awarding powers. With the Universities and Science minister, David Willetts, championing a more diverse higher education system, the co-existence of private and public business education providers is likely to be the pattern of the future. The winners should be prospective students themselves, who may reap the benefit of wider choice and more flexibility when making the commitment to study for an MBA.