John Colley

In the UK, the traditional classroom-based MBA is under attack from a number of directions. Recent Association of MBA (AMBA) figures show a drop of 20 per cent in enrolments for full time UK MBA programmes in 2011. However, there are pockets of positive news.

We are seeing rapid growth in demand for masters programmes, particularly in international business, finance and economics. These programmes are usually cheaper and do not have the management work experience requirements of the MBA. As employment prospects have become more difficult during the recession, graduates are staying at university to equip themselves with a broader skill set.

Those in work are much more reluctant to give up jobs to complete an MBA. At the same time, demand has fallen for Executive MBA programmes as a consequence of reduced business funding for management development during the recession.

There has also recently been major growth in the numbers of students pursuing distance learning MBAs. In the UK more students pursue MBAs by this method than full time MBA students. Will this trend continue and how will the class based MBA fare in the future?

The competitive advantage of distance learning MBAs is that they are convenient and usually cheaper due to lower facility requirements such as teaching staff and buildings.

There is also evidence that some disciplines such as finance, statistics, and analytical techniques can be taught well via distance learning. In these instances, discussion, case studies and conceptual learning are seen as less effective than understanding the mechanics of the techniques.

So how should UK MBAs compete in the face of environmental and competitive pressures? First of all they should play to their strengths of teaching through debate and discussion, team work and personal interaction. Teaching leadership through the development of self-awareness, the importance of values and being able to manage and work effectively in teams is highly effective.

Programmes to teach students to think creatively and generate an entrepreneurial spirit are also increasingly popular. These are normally taught jointly with direct input from teachers and entrepreneurs. Students need to learn from the experiences of other entrepreneurs, through direct interaction and questioning. Feedback we get from business leaders is that this is exactly the sort of thing they need from MBAs in the current climate. 

There is nothing quite like students working together in groups on complex business cases to generate team spirit and enduring relationships. The personal interaction teaches much in the way of business acumen and provides a broader knowledge of the challenges other businesses and industries face. The development of lifelong relationships and networks is more difficult with distance learning programmes.

Whilst it is clear that classroom-based teaching has much to offer, the focus needs to be on the core advantages such as extended networks, personal and leadership development and the building of creative and entrepreneurial skills. In this way Schools can ensure the experience is worth the substantial sacrifices students must make in terms of time and cost.

John Colley is the director of MBA programmes at Nottingham University Business School. He has previously been group managing director of a FTSE 100 business, and executive managing director of a French CAC 40 business. He currently chairs a listed Plc and is non executive director of several private equity businesses.