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Khilona Radia was about to return to full-time education at London Business School when two events made her abandon her long-held goal of getting a business education.

First, her husband was offered a medical research post in their native Cape Town. Then she discovered that she was expecting their second child. Ms Radia felt she had no choice but to suspend a career spanning banking and management consultancy to allow the family to leave the UK for South Africa.

A decade later, and now an entrepreneur working on a start-up, Antrum Biotech, Ms Radia is at last getting a UK business education. This time, however, she is doing so virtually from South Africa, through Imperial College Business School’s Global Online MBA.

Online MBA courses attract an older, more diverse group of students than traditional campus-based equivalents. Ms Radia is 44, whereas the average MBA students is 29. “We have a decent number of fortysomethings in my cohort,” she adds.

The aims of those taking up an online education often differ from traditional MBA students, who tend either to be trying to move up the career ladder or aiming to switch to another industry while increasing their salary.

“When I first got a place [at London Business School] it was about career growth,” says Ms Radia, who was then marketing and sales director for outsourcing business Sitel and hoped for a place on the board. “Now it is about getting out of my comfort zone.”

She adds that both the hard skills she is learning in finance and the softer leadership skills are important when trying to build a business.

The flexibility of the course has been an advantage as she juggles running a new business with family responsibilities.

In the future, deciding to take an online MBA rather than a campus programme may become more commonplace, according to David Lefevre, head of Imperial’s Edtech Lab. He also thinks more students may choose to switch from campus to online degrees in the middle of courses if their circumstances change, though he adds that this has only happened in a couple of cases out of 220 people currently on the Imperial online MBA.

Flexibility appeals to all sorts of students, says Mr Lefevre, adding that up to a fifth of places on some electives for the online MBA are filled by people on the full-time campus course. This flexibility attracts people who want to study without having to take time off work, he says.

Other schools actively market the benefits of working while studying online. MBA@UNC, a programme run by University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, allows students to continue their work and family life without relocating. Since the MBA’s launch in 2011, the school says that 76 per cent of participants have been promoted or changed jobs while enrolled.

Susan Cera, a director at Stratus Admissions Counseling, which advises MBA candidates, recalls a client who abandoned plans to take a full-time course in favour of the Cross Continent MBA run by Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, also in North Carolina. A selling point was the ability to apply what he learnt to challenges he was facing as a founder, she says.

Studying for an MBA while working might seem suited to the era of the gig economy, with many people freelancing. But there have always been those who want to work and study like this, although this was more difficult before the growth of online education.

Omar Picone Chiodo is a masters graduate now studying for an online MBA, yet he has never been a full-time student. The 36-year-old Italian, who works in Brussels, says that as a school leaver he reasoned that gaining experience in the corporate world was too important to delay for university.

His professors at the Politecnico di Torino allowed him to complete a bachelors degree in computer engineering and a masters in industrial engineering management while working and without attending lectures. He read coursebooks in the evening and met his tutors for seminars outside office hours.

“It was not ideal,” Mr Picone Chiodo says, adding that his grades might have been higher had he spent more time on campus. He also took twice as long as other students to complete the courses.

He has no regrets about his approach, however, noting that it gave him five years more experience in a salaried job than his peers, something he says has pushed him further up the career ladder.

The availability of fully online postgraduate business degree courses has given Mr Picone Chiodo a chance to further his education while working full time. He is in his second year of Warwick Business School’s Distance Learning MBA, which can take from two to four years. His evenings are spent studying, while by day he works as a product manager at the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity, a regulation advisory business based in Brussels.

“It would be practically impossible for me to make the next step in my career without an MBA,” he says.

There is also another advantage — Mr Picone Chiodo estimates that he is about €150,000 better off by not forgoing a salary while he studies.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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