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Eben Upton is a Cambridge man through and through. It was no surprise, then, that after he studied engineering and computer science at the university, it was to its Judge Business School that the serial entrepreneur turned when he wanted some business know-how.

Upton shot to fame in 2012 as the inventor of the Raspberry Pi, the programmable credit card-sized computer board designed to inspire children to learn computer programming. This was a year after he graduated from Judge with an executive MBA.

Upton is one of a growing number of entrepreneurs who are turning to EMBAs as a way of helping them build their business. Once the degree of the corporate world, with participants sponsored by their company, the EMBA was often seen as a stepping stone to the board. No longer: it is now the domain of the aspiring healthcare professional, government official or military officer who wants to change career or build their own business.

This diversification has led to a fall in the number of corporate-sponsored students doing an EMBA. The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, runs its EMBA programme in Philadelphia and San Francisco; just 34 per cent and 22 per cent respectively of participants are sponsored by their company. Five years ago 50 per cent of students on the Philadelphia programme were sponsored, according to Peggy Bishop Lane, vice-dean of Wharton’s EMBA programme. “In the good old days it was upwards of 80 per cent,” she adds.

This decline in sponsorship is not just a US trend. At Insead, which has campuses in France, Abu Dhabi and Singapore, the drop has been just as great, according to Marie Courtois, head of career development for Insead’s executive degrees. In 2006, just 7 per cent of participants on the Insead EMBA paid for themselves; in 2014, the figure was 70 per cent.

Courtois points to the financial crisis of 2008 as a watershed for these degrees. Not only did financially struggling corporations cut back on sponsoring students for these very expensive degrees, but aspiring managers realised the need to invest in their own professional qualifications to give themselves an advantage in an increasingly competitive job market.

Not even the fees, which often top $100,000 for many leading programmes, have deterred applicants. Indeed, Prof Bishop Lane believes that offers by companies to sponsor their executives are often rejected. The change has meant that those in charge of EMBA degrees have rapidly had to change the services they offer participants. In particular, career support and job search opportunities, once the exclusive domain of the younger full-time MBA student, are increasingly an intrinsic part of the EMBA.

Indeed, many EMBA participants are using the degree to change careers, rather than to just climb the corporate ladder. “This is a massive, massive shift,” says Courtois. “We see an information technology director or people with 15 years in the telecoms industry who want to move into consulting.” Executives are using the EMBA to change their location, their function and even their industry, she adds.

The freedom of self-financing, combined with the implementation of the latest networking and teaching technology, has meant the top programmes increasingly are attracting students from outside their traditional catchment area. At NYU Stern, for example, the school’s EMBA is populated by participants from Florida, Illinois, Texas and even California, says Heather Daly, head of the EMBA.

What is also clear is that choice of EMBA programmes is growing, with even the most traditional business schools offering EMBAs in different locations through joint ventures or multiple campuses; Chicago Booth, for example, now teaches its degree in Chicago, Hong Kong and London. The Olin school at Washington University in St Louis, which already teaches an EMBA in China with Fudan University, is launching an EMBA in India, with Indian Institute of Technology Bombay. “Once the programme has started we hope to create the possibility for any student to study in any geography [China, India or the US],” says Mahendra Gupta, dean of Olin.

Schools are also introducing new formats. Columbia Business School in New York, for example, has launched a programme taught on Saturdays – ideal for students who eschew corporate sponsorship, says Michael Malone, associate dean of the MBA programme.

For Upton at Raspberry Pi, the increasingly diversified backgrounds of his EMBA cohort at Cambridge did bring challenges. In particular, the ability to draw on the expertise of others in a similar field was limited. “The friends are much more important than the business contacts,” he says.

But as Raspberry Pi is a non-profit organisation, the EMBA was particularly important to Upton in determining the best way to develop the licensing model and finance production. With close to 4m Raspberry Pi computers sold to date, it was a model that has borne fruit.

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Poll: striking a balance

Unsociable hours: the majority of EMBA students found it difficult to balance their work, studies and personal life

A majority of executive MBA graduates polled by the FT believe their degree was worth the money, but many also found that achieving a satisfactory work-life balance during the programme was a real challenge, writes Wai Kwen Chan.

Of more than 1,200 respondents from the class of 2011, nearly 55 per cent found balancing work, study and personal life “difficult” or “very difficult”. Just under 35 per cent said it was “sometimes manageable” while only about 11 per cent found it was “easy” or “very easy”.

One graduate warned prospective students to be prepared to survive on four hours of sleep a night at times and to miss their children’s sporting events.

Yet those polled appear to have few regrets, as only 21 per cent would have preferred to study for a full-time MBA and just 16 per cent would have opted for an executive short course. One graduate would have preferred to sail around the world instead.

Respondents were asked if their employer provided non-financial support during their time as an EMBA student, such as time off to focus on their studies. About two-thirds describe that support as “excellent” or “very good”.

For many, there was light at the end of the EMBA tunnel. About 51 per cent managed to secure a job offer with a different employer, while 41 per cent gained a promotion with the employer they worked for during their studies.

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See Communities for views on whether EMBAs are worth the high fees.

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