An MBA can increase your skills, lead to promotion or even help you change career, says

While the events of 11 September fuelled an economic downturn – particularly in the US – this has not been the bad news for business schools that many would have anticipated. Never before, it seems, have there been so many people choosing to get a general management qualification under their belt.

At Imperial College Management School, for instance, student numbers are up 30 per cent on last year, and an MSc in finance has seen a 50 per cent increase, according to Imperial's dean, Professor David Norburn. "This isn't quite what I expected," he admits, "but I think that after 11 September a lot of companies used that as an excuse for laying people off, whereas in reality they were in deep trouble well before that. So they paid off people and these people are now thinking it's a good time to use the money to do a decent year in a decent school getting a decent qualification."

Professor Anthony Hopwood, the dean of Said Business School in Oxford, agrees. "We have witnessed a huge rise in demand, as a result of the general tightening of the economy. As people have lost their jobs and are off the labour market temporarily, they've naturally been thinking about doing an MBA. But there's also demand from people in employment. People are perceiving that this is a good time to invest in training and in yourself – as the job market has become more difficult, there is more requirement for a wide range of skills."

An MBA can certainly help: you'll acquire the full range of skills necessary to operate at a senior level of management, learning about subjects such as accountancy and finance, economics, marketing, organisational behaviour and information technology. You'll also improve your team and personal skills, and get a chance to refine your career options through a wide choice of specialisms.

But over and above what you study, who you associate with on your MBA can deliver significant benefits. Many MBA graduates say that they learnt as much from each other as from the lecturers or course materials. This goes some way to explaining the current popularity of places with a large international cohort, such as Said Business School, says Professor Hopwood. In an average year, just 30 per cent of the school's students come from western Europe. "I sense that one impact of 11 September is the re-emphasis that we live in a global and international world," he says. "Most US schools are quite parochial, but there is more and more interest, particularly in North America, in doing an MBA – not only to pick up more knowledge but also to pick up experience abroad."

Normally around 30 per cent of Said's MBA students are from North America; this year that has risen another six per cent. "An MBA at a school abroad, or with a large international mix, gives people the opportunity not only to put 'MBA' on their CV, but also 'international experience' and 'working in a multinational team'," says Professor Hopwood. "With an increased consciousness that we are living in a joined-up world, people see it as desirable to get used to working with a broad array of people from other countries."

But there are other, equally convincing, reasons for doing an MBA. For those stuck in a bit of a rut, it can give the leverage to move off in another direction. "You can come in as a functional specialist and come out the other end as a potential general manager," says Professor Norburn, "and this is a time when people really need to be flexible." An MBA can also help you secure a coveted promotion: according to a recent survey of the MBA Alumni Association at the Open University Business School, 90 per cent of its members reported being promoted more than once while studying or on completing their course.

That said, an MBA is rarely a cheap option. In the UK, tuition fees average out at £8,000-£12,000, but a one-year residential course at a top UK school could set you back as much as £30,000, taking into account living expenses. This may well dictate how you choose to take your MBA – the chances of getting sponsorship for a full-time course are slim, given that most companies know that you may well use the opportunity to jump ship. Part-time or distance learners are far more likely to attract corporate sponsorship, with around 80 per cent given some kind of support by their employer.

Indeed there has been increasing demand for more flexible ways of getting an MBA. Whereas a one-year full-time course suits those who want to take a break and effect a complete change in job or career direction, part-time study over two or three years allows you to stay in employment, and gives you the opportunity to put your newly acquired skills into practice from day one.

If you're one of the unlucky ones whose job went out of the window because of the recession, an MBA will offer you a chance to widen your skills portfolio and to rethink what you want to do next. And it will also offer a safe haven while you wait for blue skies to emerge. There are already signs that things are looking up, says Professor Norburn. "We're seeing the green shoots of recovery all over the place. It definitely looks like the recovery is underway, so those students starting in October and emerging next year may well find themselves back up and running."

In the meantime, the money spent on your MBA will be a good investment for the future. "It's not only a great confidence booster, but those who make good use of their redundancy pay will differentiate themselves from those who do not do something positive with it," he says. "And that will count for a lot."

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