Some of the original purveyors of the MBA are revamping their courses. Helen Jones reports

The MBA market is saturated, says Jeanette Purcell, chief executive of the Association of MBAs (AMBA). "Thousands of business schools now offer MBA courses and there will be some shakeout because it can't be sustained."

Institutions offering MBA courses are facing intense competition. Applications to business schools have fallen by around 25 per cent since the boom years of 2000 and 2001, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council, and full-time MBA programmes have been particularly badly hit as many students become increasingly cautious about giving up their jobs. Instead, they are opting for part-time or executive programmes.

"From our point of view a bit of pressure on suppliers is no bad thing because there are too many of them," says Séan Rickard, director of MBA recruitment at Cranfield School of Management.

More than ever, MBA students want to see value for money in an increasingly competitive world, says David Begg, principal of the Tanaka Business School at Imperial College London. "New schools without a differentiated offering will struggle to survive and old schools can't be complacent," he says.

Chicago University's Graduate School of Business is one of the oldest MBA schools in the world and is known for the intensity and rigour of its programme but it says it is not resting on its laurels. It has recently opened a new campus in London and has taken on new faculty members such as the controversial economist Steve Levitt, author of Freakonomics, to bring a fresh and dynamic feel to its MBA course.

However, it is sticking to the traditional US-style, two-year MBA programme. Arnold Longboy, director of recruitment at the school's new London campus, says, "The MBA course needs to be rigorous and demanding and two years in length to develop the right mindset in the students. Today's quick-fix mentality will jeopardise the high standard that an MBA should hold."

That view is not shared by Begg, who believes that European one-year MBAs offer better value for money than North American two-year programmes, "which are more than twice as expensive but don't confer twice the advantage."

To deal with the increasing pressure in the market, many older schools are revamping their courses. Manchester Business School, for example, which first offered an MBA course in 1965, has just completed a review of its programme and the steps it needs to take to become one of the world's top 25 business schools in the next 10 years. Professor John Arnold, the school's director says, "Our report on the future of Manchester Business School was the culmination of 15 months' work by an influential working group drawn from the school, the wider University of Manchester, of which Manchester Business is part, from other business schools and from senior business people."

According to Professor Arnold, the school has identified a number of ways to help it achieve its aim. First, is has made a number of virtuoso appointments as well as developing its existing staff. Second, it has invested significantly in facilities and marketing. Third, it has built strategic international partnerships through the wider University of Manchester.

Among the newer schools to be awarded AMBA accreditation is Audencia, based in Nantes, France. Stéphan Bourcieu, director of the MBA programme, says: "In today's market, supply outweighs demand and some courses are certain to fall away. Which ones they are will be less a question of how long the programme has been going and more a question of which school can adapt to the market.

"Schools have to be more creative to survive. The trick here is to try to service or answer a specific need. We have done this by concentrating on business development. While it is possible to take the Audencia MBA as a classic generalist programme, the modules offered are designed to help especially those students wishing to develop a business either in a company or as entrepreneurs after their MBA."

Kent Business School, which gained AMBA accreditation this year, believes it has a specific niche market - women. "I have been watching the 'how do we attract more women onto MBAs' debate for some time," says the school's marketing manager Rosemary Haynes. "Some of the top schools have reacted by creating scholarships for women. We have no scholarships but I'm convinced it's the kind of MBA and the environment we offer that means that 46 per cent of our MBA students are women.

"We have a reputation for being a close-knit community offering a friendly and supportive learning environment on an extremely safe and attractive campus. There is much emphasis is on team work, creating an environment our MBA women feel very comfortable in. It is this added value which has enabled us to attract more mature, successful business women."

For other newer schools, specialisation is one way of differentiating themselves. Dr Charlie Wilkinson, MBA director at the University of Southampton's School of Management, says, "What differentiates us? The MBA is a general qualification but it is possible for students to specialise and these specialisations include entrepreneurship, consultancy, risk management and health care management." The school has recently been accredited by AMBA.

Arguably, unaccredited institutions face an even tougher struggle to attract students. Tony Purdie, director of the MBA programme at Newcastle Business School (NBS) at Northumbria University, says: "It's not an easy market out there, but we see some significant opportunities."

NBS offers a partnership programme where students can study the NBS course at universities in Holland, China, Singapore and Malaysia. "For some students, studying in the UK is prohibitively expensive so they can follow our course and be assessed by us but in their home countries," says Mr Purdie.

Its specialised MBAs include one in real estate management and another in public sector management. "We are also looking at introducing a specialist element in sports management aimed at people who want to further their careers in the sports industry."