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For business schools these days it is the best of times and the worst of times. Applications to full-time courses have plummeted, but for those business schools that offer executive MBAs (MBAs for working managers), the coffers are filling up.

Not surprising then, that the number of new EMBAs is growing dramatically, with just under 90 business schools participating in EMBA2004, the FT ranking of the top EMBA programmes.

In an uncertain job market the appeal of EMBAs to individual managers is easy to see: managers can get both the education and the qualification without giving up their jobs. For corporations, the appeal is to have managers who can apply what they learn immediately in the office.

According to the latest report from the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), which administers the entrance test, 53 per cent of business schools reported that applications to their EMBA programmes were up this year, and a further 21 per cent that they were the same as previous years. This compares to full-time MBA programme providers, 75 per cent of whom said applications were down.

For these schools that offer EMBAs - and many big names such as Harvard and Stanford do not - there is an added bonus in the price they can charge. While MBA fees are usually kept artificially low, particularly in state universities, several EMBA programmes cost more than $100,000 in fees alone.

Just why applications are growing so rapidly is a bit of a mystery but the hope among business schools is that the upturn is due to structural changes in the market not just to cyclical changes or a blip in applications.

Certainly some factors are cyclical. Today’s EMBA programmes are attracting those managers in their thirties who five to 10 years ago - when they were mainstream MBA candidates - shelved the idea of doing an MBA to ride out the dotcom boom and then hung on to their jobs in the subsequent economic downturn. But schools believe there are other, more fundamental, reasons for studying an EMBA today.

Mike Fenlon, associate dean at Columbia, believes the format of the EMBA and the on-the-job training has tremendous appeal. “The classroom experience is not abstract or theoretical. In the past people thought it was a watered-down version of the MBA, but now it is recognised as having a unique value.”

Julie Cisek Jones, assistant dean and director of EMBA programmes at the Kellogg school at Northwestern University, also believes the EMBA has now firmly established itself. “What we’re starting to see now is EMBA candidates moving into senior positions in their companies and sponsoring other students on EMBA programmes.”

The increase has been particularly noticeable outside America where 64 per cent of schools report an upturn in the number of applicants, compared with 50 per cent in the US. In Europe in particular this reflects a growing acceptance of the MBA currency, says Lyn Hoffman, director of the EMBA at London Business School. “I think the EMBA in Europe is increasingly becoming more valued. We were so far behind the US in this.”

However, she reports that there is still some price resistance in Europe to the $115,000 course fees charged for the EMBA Global, the EMBA programme run jointly by LBS and Columbia, in London and New York.

The extraordinary growth in the market, though, is undoubtedly in Asia. In Taiwan, for example, which has a population of just 23m, there are 76 EMBA programmes on offer from 36 business schools and the EMBA is unequivocally the dominant business degree in this market.

China, too, is a market ripe for executive MBAs, believes Bing Xiang, dean of the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business in Beijing, an independent business school that was set up in January 2002 with funds donated by Li Ka-shing, the Hong Kong billionaire. The school will be graduating its first EMBA class by the end of 2004.

Prof Xiang argues that although the full-time MBA suits the US market, the rate of economic growth in China, combined with the speed of change in business in the region, means the executive model is better suited to the country. His government agrees with him. They have mandated China’s top 10 business schools each to graduate 300 EMBAs a year and the next 20 business schools each to graduate 100 a year - a total of 5,000 EMBAs in total.

Throughout the EMBA market, corporations are less likely to sponsor participants today than they were five or 10 years ago. This means applicants are shopping around for the programme that best suits their needs - the days when a corporation could dictate the business school are over.

In line with this there has been a subtle shift in applicants’ requirements, says Ed Leonard, senior associate dean at the Goizueta school at Emory University. “When they come in they don’t talk about the curriculum, more and more the questions are about classmates - who they are, where they are from.”

Increasingly their classmates will be women, according to the GMAC statistics - 72 per cent of schools reported that the number of women applicants had remained steady or had increased on EMBA programmes. In the US the strength in the application pool came from domestic applicants, in non-US schools the growth has been in international applicants - up 56 per cent on last year.

This growth in the number of students prepared to travel long distances in order to study for an EMBA was pioneered by the Fuqua school at Duke University with its Global Executive MBA, ranked number five in the world in EMBA2004. Though such programmes were hit badly with the travel ban imposed by many companies following the terrorist attacks in 2001, the numbers of applicants have bounced back, says Dan Nagy, associate dean at Fuqua. Indeed the school plans to expand the programme next spring.

Duke is not alone is seeing the value of programmes that recruit students from around the globe and include study on various continents, often achieved by business schools working in partnership. According to statistics to be released by the EMBA Council in the US this week, 14 per cent of EMBA programmes are jointly offered with a partner school. The statistics are particularly high outside the US, where 31 per cent of programmes are offered through a school partnership.

Moreover in schools outside the US nearly half the students - 47 per cent - are “international” - from countries other than the one in which the school is situated. In the US the model is more domestic: only 14 per cent of students on EMBA programmes are non-US.

The trend for most newer programmes - and there are on average five new EMBA programmes set up in the North America and Europe every year - is for them to be international from the outset. Oxford University’s Said school of business started its EMBA in January this year, for example, and the first class has attracted participants from as far afield as Japan, the west coast of America and Uzbekistan.

The value of programmes that mix location and student nationality receive some of the highest plaudits from students in EMBA2004. As one American alumnus from the joint programme run by Purdue, Tias, CEU and Gisma points out: “One of the most powerful characteristics of the programme is that there are executives from all over the world which brings a special flavour and enables you to better understand the cultural differences between countries.”

The good times, it seems, are set to stay.

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