It is hard to imagine an MBA programme with 40,000 active students at any one time, but such is the case with the University of Phoenix, Arizona. Well, the business school is in Arizona; the students could be anywhere in the world.

It is not difficult to see the attraction of distance learning and online MBAs: the ability to study what you want, when you want and at the speed you want to study.

The ability to study while in employment is a winning proposition, says Brian Lindquist, dean of business at the University of Phoenix. “Your value increases significantly when you are adding to your credentials while demonstrating that you can apply new knowledge at work.”

But as the market continues to grow, the limited number of suppliers of such programmes are increasingly falling into two camps.

The first are those who want to build on their on-campus MBA programmes and brands. These include such schools as Bradford or Warwick in the UK or Babson and the University of Texas at Dallas in the US.

The second are those that take the needs of the working manager as their starting point. The University of Phoenix, Edinburgh Business School and U21Global are good examples.

For the first group, rigour and accreditation are the main selling points. For the second, scale and flexibility are paramount.

As Peter Martinez, vice president of international development at the University of Phoenix, says, with 40,000 students on the books, the university can begin a new iteration of a course or module every week.

While accreditation is the by-word for quality for many traditional business schools, the young pretenders, such as the University of Liverpool and Edinburgh Business School, argue that accreditation bodies often insist on inappropriate criteria. An example is insisting that students spend a set period in group or face-to-face learning.

At Edinburgh Business School, Alick Kitchin, business director, believes that accreditation bodies adopt a “tick-box mentality”, measuring the various inputs to the programme, such as teaching methods.

He argues that the important thing is whether the participants have mastered the topics, not how they have done so. “Mature students are the best judge of how they want to learn.”

He also argues that business schools that operate globally, and have to operate in the strict regulatory environments that national education authorities im-pose, have little need for additional accreditation. “I have never really seen the attraction of the self-appointed private sector accreditation bodies,” he says.

While all the programmes outlined in the Financial Times listing enable students to study at a distance from the home university, their delivery methods and requirements for graduation can vary enormously.

The University of Phoenix, the University of Liverpool and U21Global, for example, deliver all their teaching materials online and students deliver their course work via the internet.

At the other extreme the University of Durham delivers its course material in hard copy and on CD-Rom.

The hallmark of the Open University Business School is its local tutorials, a model emulated by many of the more traditional UK universities. Other business schools insist that participants visit the campus for introductory courses or to sit examinations. At Warwick Business School, for example, enrolled students have to attend courses for eight days in September each year.

Schools such as Warwick and Bradford in the UK, that also run full-time and executive MBA programmes, can allow students to transfer between modes of study.

According to Stuart Sutherland, learning consultant in the learning resource development team at Warwick, half of the students who enrol on its distance learning programme will do at least one face-to-face module.

One of the striking characteristics of the listing is the extent to which US programmes operate very much in a domestic market, while those from outside the US operate globally.

At the Universities of Phoenix and Florida, for example, only 2 per cent of enrolled students are from outside the US, at Walden University the figure is just 1 per cent. The exception to this is Thunderbird business school’s Global MBA for Latin American managers, which it runs jointly with Tecnologico de Monterrey, with 93 per cent of participants live outside the US.

At UK business schools, which dominate the listing – 11 of the 25 schools are UK-based – 70 per cent of enrolled students are from outside the UK, often from Asia.

At Edinburgh teaching materials are available in the world’s three major languages, Chinese, English and Spanish, as well as Hebrew. An Arabic version is on the drawing board.

This global focus is a characteristic that the schools are proud to promote. At Warwick, Mr Sutherland says the students on the distance learning MBA are more international and more diverse in terms of age, gender and job sector, than those on other Warwick programmes. When marketing, he says, “we do unashamedly sell the peer group.”

While inter-school alliances are proving increasingly popular in the Executive MBA marketplace, only two – the Thunderbird/Tecnologico de Monterrey alliance and the Euro MBA programme – are prominent in th distance learning.

The participating schools in the Euro MBA are Audencia in Nantes, Eada in Barcelona, IAE Aix-en-Provence, Open Universiteit Nederland and Universiteit Maastricht Business School.

Each of the Euro schools are well known in their domestic markets, though less so elsewhere in Europe, says Stuart Dixon, director of the Euro MBA programme.

While the programme gives the business schools a European-wide profile, it also enables students to benefit from teaching styles and materials of several different countries. Two-thirds of the 1,500 hours of study on the programme are online.

Mr Dixon says the programme was set up because of student demand. “The European market is demanding this.”

With thousands of new students enrolling every week on distance MBAs, the market for these programmes looks particularly healthy.

Additional research by Wai Kwen Chan

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