March 12, 2012 12:03 am

Analysis: Flexibility for participants must be the watchword

With the number of online programmes growing all the time, this year’s Financial Times listing of distance learning MBAs – now in its seventh year – is the largest to date.

Using a web-based questionnaire, 48 business schools – nine of which are in the listing for the first time – outlined the courses they offer. The details of these are summarised in our table.

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Listed first are schools accredited by either AACSB or Equis; participation in the FT’s Global MBA Ranking requires this certification. They are followed in our listing by schools that do not have this accredition.

Among the 61 degrees in total, 90 per cent are generalist programmes.

While relatively few courses are specialist – the Global Energy MBA at Warwick Business School is one such – the more general courses offer varying levels of specialisation.

The Warwick MBA by Distance Learning allows students to choose six electives from 13 options. This selection is trebled to 39 if distance students opt to study full-time for any period.

“Students may mix and match according to their circumstances,” says Nigel Piercy, associate dean for the Warwick MBA.

There are about 50,000 students enrolled on the programmes in the listing.

While many of the larger programmes – such as those of Edinburgh Business School at Heriot-Watt University, which has more than 10,000 MBA students on its books – have rolling enrolment, other schools have a limit of two or three intakes a year.

In July 2011, the first cohort of the newly launched MBA@UNC at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School was made up of only 19 individuals.

“We are determined to ensure consistency in standards with our full-time programme across the board, including admissions standards,” says Susan Cates, executive director of the MBA@UNC.

With minimum tuition fees of $89,000, the MBA@UNC is among the priciest of the featured programmes. The Executive MBA offered in partnership by IE Business School in Spain and Brown University in the US is the most expensive, with fees of €72,000 ($94,500).

The divergence in the minimum fees of listed courses between the US and Europe broadly mirrors the pattern in full-time MBA degrees.

Of schools accredited by AACSB or Equis, tuition costs are on average $60,000 in the US, more than double the UK average of £18,000 ($28,400).

Of the 48 listed schools, 70 per cent can support their distance MBAs in each global region. Only 8 per cent are restricted to one region.

Despite this international reach, US-based programmes reported that an average of only five per cent of their students live outside the country.

For programmes based in Europe, this figure is 71 per cent. Applicants for the Distance Learning MBA at Imperial College London, for example, come from about 60 countries this year, says Marcel Cohen, the programme director.

With the competition between schools for top students unrestricted by physical distance, “the key concept is flexibility”, says Mr Cohen.

“Talented students that we want are often faced with the dilemma: ‘How can I leave my job to study?’.”

To accommodate the unpredictability of individuals’ careers, many schools deliver teaching material, coursework and even exams online and also extend time limits for degrees to be finished.

At the UK’s University of Strathclyde Business School, students are allowed up to six years to complete their Flexible Learning MBA.

“The demands of people’s jobs may necessitate a less intense period of study”, says George Burt, MBA director, “and the beauty of flexible learning is that students can adjust their pace to work commitments”.

While some schools offer extended time limits, others, including IE Business School in Madrid, offer distance programmes with a full-time schedule.

Álvaro García de Soto, executive director of IE’s Global MBA, says: “Our courses are designed to engage and stimulate students, and require consistent participation on both an individual and group level.”

At the University of Florida’s Hough Graduate School of Business, the Internet Two-Year MBA must be completed in 27 months. “One of the strengths of the cohort model is that the students learn and collaborate throughout the programme”, says Alex Sevilla, MBA director.

Fears that increased flexibility leads to higher dropout rates are not supportedby the data in this listing, which do not show an obvious link between time limits and degree completion.

Overall, 88 per cent of students are reported to graduate within five years.

“Curiously, we have observed that distance students appear to identify even more with the school than those on campus,” says Mr de Soto.

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Regional relativity: Comparing online with full-time programme fees

Of the 48 schools featured in this year’s FT Online MBA Listing, 12 have full-time programmes ranked in the world’s top 100 in the FT Global MBA Ranking 2012.

Six of these are based in the US, and six in Europe – five of them in the UK.

Given the status of the full-time campus-based MBA as a benchmark for quality, it is instructive to compare these schools’ relative positions in the Global MBA ranking and the tuition fees of their distance degrees, which are not ranked by the FT.

The chart illustrates the difference in fees charged by six of the 12 US and European schools.

All six ranked US schools charge more for their distance MBAs than Spain’s IE Business School, whose campus-based International MBA is ranked eighth in the world.

In Europe there appears to be a link between a school’s ranking and its distance MBA fees.

Bradford University School of Management, 95 in the 2012 Global MBA Rankings, charges £12,950 ($20,400) for its distance learning MBA, equivalent to less than half the €39,000 ($51,200) charged by IE for its programme.

For US schools, however, the link is not clear. Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business charges less for its distance MBA than the five other US institutions ranked by the FT, despite having the highest placed on-campus MBA.

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