MBAs: The pros and cons of distance-learning

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The Independent Online

I think it is a travesty to call a distance-learning MBA an MBA," fulminates Sean Rickard, director of MBA recruitment at Cranfield School of Management. "It should be called a business degree or something like that."

Strong stuff, and unlikely to endear him to the many hundreds of workers grinding away at home or in hotels, often after a long day of meetings or at the weekend, on their next distance-learning MBA project.

From small beginnings a decade ago, most business schools now offer some element of remote or distance learning within their MBAs.

"Pure" distance-learning MBAs, where there is minimal contact with tutors and other students, are less common but nevertheless growing in popularity.

For the manager who cannot afford to drop everything, either financially or because of family or company commitments, being able to do an MBA over a number of years at your own pace can be a god-send and, often, the only way.

But does all that hard work and self-discipline actually pay off? It may be the same qualification in name but is a distance-learning MBA, unfairly or not, perceived as second class to its more glamorous full-time relative?

Rickard, for one, is unrepentant. "Students need to be faced with problems as teams and they have to come up with those answers against the clock. We try to replicate what life is really like in senior management, and you just cannot do that through distance learning," he argues.

Approach many of the big MBA employers on this issue and you are met with a very straight bat.

"We simply do not comment," says McKinsey. "We would never look at someone differently just because they had done a distance-learning MBA, it is the quality of the CV and the fit of the person that counts," adds a spokeswoman for Bain.

But Julia Harvie-Liddel, UK and Ireland recruitment lead at Accenture, is more forthcoming. The consultancy recruits around 10 MBA graduates a year, normally from a relatively narrow field: "We have a close relationship with about three or four business schools, at the moment London Business School, IMD, Insead and Tanaka. We do not work with any of the distance learning sites, and our MBA graduates will typically have done a full-time MBA course."

What Accenture is normally looking for, argues Harvie-Liddel, is less the technical skills an MBA brings (although they are important) and more the soft skills - team-working, the ability to articulate complex issues clearly, "nimble and agile" thinking - that come with it. At this level, then, Rickard's criticisms do appear to have some validity.

But Harvie-Liddel is also quick to stress that many Accenture employees go on to do MBAs themselves, often through distance-learning courses.

And this is the problem. There are probably as many reasons for doing an MBA as there are MBA students. Not all people do an MBA to go into consultancy or the City. And not all employers want a young buck straight out of a full-time programme.

The MBA, argues Stuart Dixon, programme director of the distance-learning Euro MBA programme, is not a one-size-fits-all qualification, and should not strive to be.

"We had an Italian guy who lived in France and spent 20 to 25 days a month travelling and only saw his family every two weeks. He studied in hotels and on aeroplanes and this was the only way he could do an MBA," he explains.

While a full-time MBA may be immersion therapy, a distance-learning MBA gives you the chance to apply what you are learning as you go along, he counters. And staying the course requires dedication, organisation and commitment, all valuable life skills that sell themselves well to employers.

For the past two and a half years Geraint Evans, 32, has been studying a distance-learning MBA through Warwick University. "It was something I had been considering for a while but in my career I felt unable just to drop everything, and the cost had been prohibitive," says Evans, business development manager for financial services law firm Pinsent Masons in Birmingham.

"I have to travel a lot for my job but I can access my study material and my tutors online. I am able to manage my company time and family commitments alongside my studying."

Every month he meets up with a 12-strong study group, there are optional study weekends throughout the year and a compulsory week-long seminar every September. "The content is the same, the exam is as rigorous and the assignments are set by the same lecturers and tutors. It all depends on your circumstances," he stresses.

The key for prospective students, argues Rob Dixon, deputy dean of Durham University Business School, which runs a well regarded distance-learning MBA, is to look closely at the level of contact time - how many seminars are there, how long do they last and how frequently are they held? Durham, for instance, holds seminars twice a year, with each lasting four to five days.

"There is a view on the part of some employers that distance learning is a cut down version where you cannot possibly develop the soft skills because it is done at a distance. But in the quality learning programmes you will get the soft skills during the seminar activities," says Dixon.

'If I'd studied a full-time MBA, I would have had to give up my job'

Last November, Patricia Alexander, 48, joined the Shared Interest Society, a tradecraft financial services provider based in Newcastle, as managing director after graduating last summer from Durham University's distance-learning MBA.

"Do I think the MBA got me this job? Absolutely. The MBA gave me the ability to take on new knowledge and information. It gets you thinking and analysing more, and questioning the status quo," says Alexander.

"If I had studied a full-time MBA I would have had to give up my job and if you do that you risk going backwards. I had a friend who had done a full-time MBA and had never got back into the same level of role as before," she adds.

"Also, I felt a full-time MBA would not give me the opportunity to put into practice the learning and embedding it as I went along. I have gone through the pain of studying while still working, when you go up for a job that is a plus. I can show I am disciplined, organised and self-motivated."

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