If there is one thing guaranteed to give Ewan Ferlie nightmares, it is the collapse of the Chinese market for management education. The head of Royal Holloway School of Management, part of the University of London, knows how important Chinese students are to the school’s MBA in International Management programmes.

Fifty-five of the 91 students who began the distance learning version of the MBA in International Management programme last year are based in Hong Kong, and overall, 56 per cent of the school’s MBA alumni are from south and east Asia, and Pacific regions.

An economic collapse or an event such as the Sars crisis in China would be very damaging in the short-term, says Professor Ferlie. Looking further ahead, China could build more of its own institutions to rival Royal Holloway, explaining why the school is doing more work with India.

But Prof Ferlie and his colleagues do not give the impression of being worried. In fact, there is a confidence at the school that is reflected in its expansion since he became its head in October 2003, and underpinned by the launch this January of an updated and revised structure for its MBA programme.

“We’ve grown from being a small size to a medium-sized school, with about 1,300 FTEs [full time equivalent students],” says Prof Ferlie. “It’s not a vast factory, but at the same time it’s got critical mass and visibility. I think medium-sized is better than either very large or very small.”

Not everyone in the business school world would agree with that, or indeed with Prof Ferlie’s view that it is still possible to carve out a distinctive niche and resist the trend towards isomorphism – all schools looking the same.

“Schools do have different personalities, which I think is good as it offers choice,” he says. “It would be a disaster if students just had 100 clones of London Business School to choose from,” he says.

One important difference, says Prof Ferlie, is that Royal Holloway is a school of management, not a school of business. Thus its strengths are in fields such as organisation development (OD) and corporate social responsibility, and the public sector is a high priority.

“So if you are interested in OD in sustainable enterprises, you would come here,” says Prof Ferlie. “If it was derivatives that interested you, you would go to Imperial or Cass.”

Brendan McSweeney, the school’s deputy director, sees four pillars on which the school relies for its distinctiveness. The first is its international approach, whether it be in its research, recruitment or programmes. “The ‘International’ prefix [in the title of the MBA programmes] is not tokenism,” he says.

The second pillar is an evidence-based approach, with a strong commitment to fieldwork. At the same time, the school is theoretically strong, says Prof McSweeney, as “there is nothing more practical than a good theory”. The final feature is pluralism, recognising the legitimacy of other stakeholders in a business, beyond shareholders.

The school’s international marketing efforts have been given a big boost by being part of the University of London “global brand”, says Prof Ferlie. The physical setting of Royal Holloway on a hilltop at Egham, Surrey, and its extraordinary late-Victorian Founder’s Building with its exuberant turreted roofline, is a further attraction. “When students log on it’s like a fantasy of what a British university should look like – Hogwarts,” he says.

In an increasingly competitive market, however, the syllabus has to be right, too, and the school recognised the need to freshen up and re-focus its MBA offering. The backdrop is the rising popularity of MBA programmes worldwide, coupled with the increasing numbers of schools offering one. “We are all fishing in a bigger pool, but there are a lot more fishermen,” says Chris Howorth, who runs the distance-learning MBA.

Mr Howorth and David Faulkner, his counterpart on the on-campus side (which takes a maximum of 60 participants in each full-time cohort), have remodelled the MBA. The first step, having decided on a high-quality rather than “cheap and cheerful” approach, was accreditation.

“This was one of the things I wanted to see happen when I came here,” says Prof Ferlie. The MBA was accredited by the Association of MBAs (Amba) two years ago. The school has responded to advice from Amba to give students more choice, and has increased the number of electives, with new ones available in finance and marketing. It has also drawn on an advisory panel of companies and feedback from MBA recruiters, and has added new modules on the Philosophy of Management – or how to think about business – and Sustainability and Ethics.

One important result of the changes is that the MBA has become essentially the same, whether taught full-time on campus, part-time on-campus, or via distance learning (the part-time option is less popular and at present there is no executive MBA, although Prof Ferlie says it is a possibility).

On the distance-learning MBA, the most important innovation has been the inclusion, from last year’s intake, of face-to-face teaching for all students, in the form of two one-week plenary sessions at the school. In the past, only students based in Hong Kong have received some face-to-face teaching as a result of a partnership with Hong Kong University.

The plenary sessions will involve intensive work on real business problems, and will bring the distance-learning students together with their on-campus counterparts. It will be a useful opportunity for the distance-learning students to build a network of future contacts, says Mr Howorth. “You can build these networks online through peer-to-peer discussion but they will not be nearly as strong as face-to-face,” he adds.

Meanwhile, the school is halfway through a two-year, £500,000 programme to update its web presence and maintain its effectiveness online.

A lot of effort is going into rewriting paper-based material for the web, which involves not so much the content itself but the way it is displayed, says Mr Howorth.

Audio and video content is being prepared for the iPod format, with the emphasis on short clips encapsulating a one-hour lecture in three to five minutes. As Prof McSweeney notes, no one would watch a one-hour lecture on an iPod or similar device.

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