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As competition for MBA students intensifies, the staff of Bradford University School of Management have cause to be satisfied with the performance of their often unfairly overlooked institution.
Last year Bradford welcomed 156 people onto its full-time MBA programme – double that of the previous year. It is enough to make David Spicer, the associate dean for the MBA programme, crow that Bradford’s is now the biggest MBA programme in the UK.
But why Bradford? The university does not have the highest of profiles and nor is the city a fashionable location: its economic fortunes have declined sharply as its manufacturing base has been eroded. Its image was further sullied six years ago when racial tension – the city has a large Muslim population of Pakistani origin – flared into violence.
But the school, centred around a pair of striking Victorian buildings, stands in the more attractive green suburbs and is close to the glorious countryside of the Yorkshire Dales. MBA rankings have confirmed its reputation: this year the FT ranked Bradford’s full-time programme in the UK’s top 10 and at number 70 in the world. The institution was earlier ranked eighth among European Business Schools.
Bradford’s appeal is further explained by financial considerations. It is one of Britain’s cheapest cities and the school gets a high ranking in terms of the value for money of its £18,500 MBA programme. “On a costs versus return basis I think we stack up very well,” Dr Spicer says. “People looking seriously at an MBA will very quickly find that our programme is internationally recognised and credible.”
Arthur Francis, the school’s dean, acknowledges that Bradford has to fight hard to get noticed but says this is less of a problem for the international market. Being a less heralded destination and therefore less costly “plays into our hands to some extent”, he says. “London has the disadvantage that it is very expensive.”
Another factor in favour of Bradford’s popularity has been its inclusion, along with nine other UK business schools, on the UK Treasury’s list of the world’s top 50 schools. That means anyone from outside the European Union who gets an MBA at Bradford is entitled to work in the UK for 12 months after graduating.
Overseas students are very important to the MBA programme in Bradford. About one-third of this year’s intake was from India. “Three years ago it would have been that many from China,” says Professor Francis.
Prof Francis contends that the school has been consolidating its reputation over the past seven or eight years. Turnover has doubled and Bradford – a “full-service” busines school that also has 350 undergraduates – continues to think bigger, with plans to expand its campus, now full, by 2009. Executive education programmes include a “manager’s toolkit” of two-day courses, which Prof Francis says has been well received by local businesses.
Bradford is also expanding off-campus. Distance learning is ever more important. This year the school is launching a programme for students in Malaysia, with recruitment, marketing and tutorial support given by a local partner along the lines of similar partnerships in Singapore and Hong Kong that give Bradford about 140 students each year.
Like many institutions, Bradford is finding that technological change opens up routes for distance learning but it is still experimenting with the most appropriate methods. It runs discussion forums for students and has received a good response for making lectures available online to remote students. Lecturers are simply and unobtrusively fitted with microphones so that their words can be packaged in MP3 format for students to download.
It wants to supplement this with more “collaborative learning” such as videoconferencing between small student groups and tutors. Damian Ward, director of studies for the distance learning programme, says: “If you can use the technology to create an intelligent learning experience we begin to move in a way that is more attractive for our students.”
But Dr Ward says Bradford has now drawn back from “over-engineered” ideas such as videoing lectures, which remote students have not found as useful. Prof Francis says Bradford needs to be “just behind the leading edge” of technology. “Being whizzy with the technology does not sell MBAs. We are happy to let other people experiment and learn lessons that we can adapt,” he says.
Whatever the delivery method, Bradford’s mantra is that students should get “one MBA” via a common core of subjects. The programme has been revised to develop the “softer” skills of its students, who must complete a personal development portfolio with the involvement of a personal tutor.
“It is there to give people a structure and a framework to consider their personal development over the MBA,” says Dr Spicer. “The students who historically get most out of MBAs were those who thought about it as a development exercise. It is a way of tying personal development to work development.”
Prof Francis adds: “The message from the market was that MBAs were good at doing the numbers and needed people skills to really deliver.” The teaching of organisational behaviour has also been increased.
Bradford remains bullish about future numbers, with Prof Francis believing distance learning has plenty of scope for expansion at home and abroad. Sri Lanka, Trinidad and Dubai are probable destinations for an expansion of the distance MBA, while the “manager’s toolkit” may also be offered to distance learners.
Dr Spicer recognises there will always be volatility in numbers of full-time MBA candidates. “I would be naïve to say I would get so many this year,” he says. Nevertheless Bradford plans to maintain about 100 as a target.
“When people get here it sells itself – the campus, the site and the facilities stack up very well,” he says. “The challenge is getting people into the city and into the school,” he says.