Graduates seek degrees of relevance

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Every year 11,000 MBA graduates pour on to the UK job market and 80,000 in the US. After the grind of study, most are hoping they will be rewarded in terms of career and salary.

Will where they studied make a difference? Undoubtedly. A degree from a top US school such as Harvard or Wharton has a cachet that seems virtually unshakeable.

Will how they studied make a difference? This is much less clear.

Distance learning courses have grown phenomenally over the past 10 years, but few think the internet is a good substitute for face-to-face teaching or the much lauded working in groups.

As a result, the difference between classroom-based programmes and distance learning has become blurred, with most universities incorporating a mixture of both - so-called blended learning.

This can make assessing the “buying power” of a distance-only degree difficult. Apart from a few well-known providers - Phoenix University in the US, say, or the Open University in Britain, both of which brand themselves as distance-learning specialists - most universities fail to distinguish between part-time and internet-based courses.

One of the biggest growth areas, for example, has been in part-time executive education courses, which involve periods of full-time attendance, interspersed with e-learning programmes while the student continues to go to work.

Jeanette Purcell, chief executive of the Association of MBAs, goes as far as saying that she thinks a completely online approach is not suitable for a management qualification.

Like most specialists in the field she argues that learning to work with people in the classroom is an essential precursor to the rough and tumble of the workplace. As a result, the association requires accredited members to include some classroom interaction in their courses.

This makes exact figures on how many students are attending distance learning only courses unclear.

A survey by the Association of MBAs in 2003 showed a sharp rise in the number of students on part-time and distance learning courses, with only 35 per cent of those taking part in the study attending university full-time.

However, as the remaining 65 per cent on part-time and distance programmes were required to have some classroom component, it is hard to draw useful conclusions about the effect of an internet-based qualification on a graduate’s job prospects.

Ian Turner, director of graduate education at Henley School of Management, says this reflects the reality of the market. He says the biggest division in achievement after graduation is not the difference between distance and classroom-based learning, but between part-time and full-time courses. “Essentially, it’s between the students who left their jobs and those who stayed,” he says.

He points to the Association of MBAs’ survey of post graduation salaries published last month. Students who had completed two years of full-time study were earning £78,709 a year on average. This compared with £75,868 for those who had taken the one year full-time course, and £65,863 for those on modular courses.

Distance learning courses - which must have included a class-room based component according to the association’s own accreditation requirements - did come bottom at £62,791 a year, but by a narrower margin.

While useful, even these figures come with caveats. More people who are doing distance learning courses are likely to come from outside cities, where salaries tend to be lower. They also tend to be older, Prof Turner says, and could be operating in the public sector.

They are also likely to be staying in the same job, so the difference between pre- and post-graduation salary, at least after only a year, may not be large.

Rod Younger, managing director of European MBAs, an online matching agency for graduating MBAs and employers, says that post-Enron and other financial scandals, even US recruiters have started to shift away from favouring candidates from a particular school or mode of study.

They are more concerned with the experience and skills a particular candidate may have, qualities that distance and part-time learners, who tend to be older, often have in spades.

Mr Younger says: “I think employers are becoming much more sceptical about younger, less experienced, MBA graduates coming out of some of the more respected business schools. As a result, they are increasingly less concerned with where they are coming from and more concerned with why.”

Ashley Unwin, partner in the human capital practice at Deloitte, which takes on about 15 graduates a year, does not distinguish between part-time or distance learning MBAs in recruiting. In fact, he says: “We encourage our staff to study as much as they can on a distance-learning basis.”

Ultimately, it would seem, an MBA, however earned, is only as good as the experience and personality of the person to whom it is attached. PwC concurs: “We’re looking for the right experience and right skill set. If the candidate has an MBA, that is great, but we don’t specifically ask for one.”

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