Applications to full-time MBAs are dwindling as older students seek the flexibility and career benefits of an executive course

At St James's Church, in Clerkenwell, London, the vicar's sermons are a little unusual. Bond and equity valuations are assessed in relation to the transient nature of life and the eternal value of heaven. Biblical references go hand in hand with business practice and ethics. "The congregation think it's highly amusing that I'm doing this course and that I quote it nearly every sermon," says the vicar, the Rev Andrew Baughen. "Whatever I've been learning that week I tend to relate and apply."

Baughen is a student on one of Cass Business School's two executive MBA (EMBA) courses. One is modular, held at weekends, and the other is run two evenings a week. Valuing his Sundays, Baughen opted for the evening version. "I did a business degree and then worked in strategic planning for a couple of consultancy firms, working for banks mostly," he says. "Then I was called to the ministry and I was encouraged to keep my skills and relate them to churches."

He has written a book on strategic planning for churches, The Because Approach. "I'm keen that every church leader and member knows the 'because' behind every activity," he says.

The vicar is ahead of the game, since EMBAs are becoming more popular. About 3,000 students across 27 British universities were taking one in 2009/10, up from 1,800 in 2006/7, according to the most recent figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

MBAs come in a variety of adjectives – and some might describe the Cass evening course as "part-time" rather than "executive". But, unlike many part-time courses, it is cohort-based and Steve Thomas, who runs it, defends the title. "The basic subjects are similar to any MBA, but the flavour is different," he says. "There's more emphasis on leadership and on emerging markets. Over the two years, students will typically go to China for a week, Latin America for a week, and possibly to the Gulf and South Africa."

Leadership teaching is appropriate, because on most EMBAs the participants are older than the MBA average. At Cass they are typically in their mid-30s, with 10 to 12 years' corporate experience.

The course puts huge pressure on people, Thomas says. "We estimate it takes about 20 hours of their time each week for study. You work for eight hours, then come to a lecture and you don't get home till 10:30pm. The commitment goes deep into your life and you need the support of your family and employer."

The Cass EMBAs cost £42,000, compared with the full-time fee of £34,500. Scholarships are available, but it still represents a considerable outlay at a time when corporate funding is dwindling and many more students are self-financing.

Can this investment be recouped? Percentage salary increases tend to be lower than for full-time graduates, since they are already higher earners. Nonetheless the Executive MBA Council, in a worldwide survey, found that EMBA students' salary and bonus packages increased by 16.3 per cent in 2010.

Since participants keep their jobs while doing an EMBA, the aim is not so much a sector-switching salary hike but promotion – and surveys suggest that most will be promoted within three years of the course.

At the top end, the courses are not cheap. Students entering Wharton's two-year executive MBA in San Francisco paid $173,940 (£116,000) last year. In some cases the cost reflects the level of travel involved. Two of London Business School's executive MBA courses are ranked in the world's top 10. The school's most expensive course is the EMBA-Global Asia, which this year will cost $133,080 (£89,000). The other is taught in London or Dubai and costs almost £59,000 for 20 months.

Ann Sanford is programme director for the global programmes, which are run with Hong Kong University and Columbia Business School, New York. She tells of students commuting from Australia, Hawaii and Tunisia to take part. She says it's worth their time and money. "They work incredibly hard but they get the opportunity to live and work in the world's three major financial centres, where they hear fantastic speakers. They have access to all the alumni and they also get more than one MBA." The first year's modules are residential and the faculty travel with the students.

EMBA students generally tend to live much closer to their school than full-time students, who predominantly come to Britain from abroad. But most executive MBAs contain some element of foreign travel, usually a week or 10 days in which students visit companies and write strategy plans afterwards.

For Nick Dunnett, 37, that trip is still to come. He is director of professional services for Itesoft, a French software company, and is in his first year of a two-year EMBA at Surrey Business School. "I live in Guildford, where the course is held, and it's one weekend a month, which appealed to me. The nice thing is that, having learnt something at the weekend, I can see it in the workplace during the week – if not in what I do myself or with my team, then in my customers. It enables me to talk to customers in their language and understand where they're coming from. That's a big benefit."

It does, however, require commitment. "My children don't see me those weekends," Dunnett says. "You get out of it what you put into it. I could do the bare minimum and just about get by, but the benefit would be much reduced. You've got to want to do it."

One reason for the rise of the EMBA is that, though demand for the full-time option remains high at the top schools, further down the rankings applications are dropping. Sharon Bamford, chief executive of the Association of Business Schools (AMBA), points to two reasons: the state of the economy and new visa restrictions that have made British courses less attractive for foreign applicants. "When we sit down with employers they are very interested in the executive and part-time MBA," Bamford says. "The reason is that they see the level of experience. They see this as a very rich market – self-motivated individuals working full-time and studying part-time. They're gaining motivation to improve, as well as an international network that comes from the cohort."

Full-time courses used to be seen as the flagships by business schools, but Brigitte Nicoulaud, director of MBA programmes at Aston Business School in Birmingham, believes that EMBAs are taking their place and it's going to be increasingly unusual for British schools to stay in the international rankings, she says. "Some are seriously thinking of stopping the full-time MBA. But also more and more students are taking MSc courses straight after their first degrees. They won't want to do a full-time course very quickly, but they might want to do one later, and that would be an executive MBA."

Aston is launching a 27-month EMBA in October, involving seven week-long modules a year and costing around £25,000. Local employers will help with the fees. Henley Business School already runs a 27-month EMBA, but is tweaking the course in response to feedback. "From September we're offering a 21-month option," says Richard McBain, head of post-experience postgraduate programmes. "We're also dropping one of the study visits and we're regularising the pattern of the workshops.

"As swathes of middle management get cut, people are staying in more specialist roles longer. The EMBA, which is a generalist tool, is more attractive to those experienced managers."

Henley is also 'reorientating' its full-time course this year, aiming it at younger candidates. Like many other schools at this level, it will require a GMAT test score for the MBA, but not for the EMBA, where experience is what counts.

What should a student look for in an EMBA? "The really important thing is to ask about the cohort," says Sharon Bamford. "Who else is on it? Ask from last year's perspective – average age, diversity and internationalisation, which is increasingly important. On an EMBA, the students learn as much from working together as they do from the books and course content."

Not everyone buys the EMBA model. Some leading American schools, including Harvard, Stanford and Tuck, refuse to run one. The full-time, two-year immersion experience, Stanford says, provides "more time to pursue study, innovative projects, leadership development labs, and a summer internship". Tuck's dean, Paul Danos, wants all of the focus coming from faculty and staff to be on the full-time MBA students.

Conversely, some schools don't offer a full-time MBA at all, such as ESCP Europe, which runs an EMBA costing €51,000 across five campuses, in Paris, London, Berlin, Madrid and Turin.

"Harvard still claims that it is the only true MBA," says Patrick Gougeon, the director of ESCP Europe's London campus, "but American schools generally are taking younger and younger people. They might be very smart, but they don't have much understanding of how businesses work.

"Full-time MBAs come too early in your business life. MBAs to start with were focused on management techniques but management courses are included these days in many programmes, including engineering. Now the soft skills are more important. We focus on leadership, teamwork, how to behave in groups and so on. This makes no sense for young people."

Case study

'It was a great start-up training ground'

Michelle Wright, who started life as a professional violinist, completed her EMBA programme with Ashridge, the Hertfordshire business school, in 2010. During it she launched her company Cause4, which supports charities and social enterprises.

"The EMBA workload can feel like a juggernaut at times. By the second year I had six essays of 4,000 words, a 10,000-word organisational development project and six three-hour exams to prepare for. This was on top of starting my own business, a three-day-a-week consultancy commitment supporting FTSE 100 companies in cultural sponsorship – and maintaining a semblance of family life.

There's not much capacity in this scenario for when life intervenes. The toughest time I had during the course was when a close colleague was ill and I had to pick up an even bigger workload. My family and colleagues were very supportive, but they were all relieved when exams were over and I wasn't quite so pale, tired and irritable.

I learnt a lot about how I respond to pressure. It was a great training ground for managing a fast-growing start-up, where you do everything from client acquisition and delivery to running the payroll.

The other big lesson for me was having to accept that sometimes doing just enough had to be good enough. The full-time MBAs can completely absorb themselves in their studies but with the EMBA other work and commitments often have to take precedence.

I found this tough at first, but it was a great learning experience for senior roles, when you are dealing with multiple demands, impossible deadlines and problems that emerge from left-field."