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Spain’s IE Business School has beaten 14 rivals to retain the number one spot in the 2015 Financial Times ranking of online MBAs.

An important factor in IE’s success is that its alumni earn the highest average salary at nearly $153,000, a rise of 43 per cent on their income on graduation three years ago.

The year’s biggest climber is the UK’s Bradford University School of Management, up three places to eighth overall. Its rise was helped by the joint highest alumni salary increase of 43 per cent, up from 30 per cent last year. As well as coming top for career progression, the school rose seven places to eighth position for “aims achieved” — the extent to which alumni fulfilled their goals.

In joint eighth place, rising one position, is Syracuse University’s Whitman school in the US, which also tops the career service ranking. This is calculated from the alumni rating given to the efficiency of the career service in finding them a job.

The top seven places are dominated by the same schools as last year’s inaugural ranking. In second place again is the UK’s Warwick Business School. One graduate who responded to the FT survey said the course led to a promotion and job offers from other companies. The course required 15 hours of work a week in addition to his job. The virtual study route is not for the faint-hearted, but the results show it can be a good alternative to an on-campus degree.

The ranking contains two criteria specific to online programmes. Alumni were asked to rate how well their degree was delivered online and the level of interaction with peers and academic staff. University of Florida’s Hough school came top in both categories to rise one place to third overall, making it the highest-ranked US school. It is also top in the “aims achieved” category.

There were two newcomers: the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Isenberg school and Florida International University’s (FIU) Chapman school, ranked 11th and 14th respectively.

The ranking is based on surveys of schools and of alumni who graduated in 2011. Schools must be internationally accredited and at least 70 per cent of their programme content must be delivered online.

At the start of their MBA, nearly three-quarters of the graduates were professionals and 12 per cent held senior manager or executive roles. Three years after graduation, the picture has changed. Nearly 30 per cent of graduates hold senior manager or executive positions, the most common. This is followed by professional (27 per cent), other director/vice-president (16 per cent) and department head (15 per cent).

The top sector that graduates enter is finance and banking at 13 per cent, followed by the industrial and information technology/telecoms sectors at 12 per cent each. About 11 per cent go into healthcare and also consultancy.

The main reason given for studying for an MBA was to develop management skills, followed by increasing earnings and securing a promotion. Nearly 90 per cent of participants achieved these aims.

Some alumni came from technical, engineering or medical backgrounds and have switched to managerial roles.

About 20 per cent of graduates launch companies. One respondent said his MBA gave him the confidence to follow his entrepreneurial aspirations and start a small technology consultancy. A customer then invited him to develop a business division.

There is gender divide on salaries, with men earning $130,000 on average, $22,000 more than women, but the gap may be closing. The uplift in women’s salaries in the three years since graduation is higher at 37 per cent than men’s at 30 per cent. The salary rise in last year’s ranking, for the class of 2010, was 26 per cent for women and 28 per cent for men.

European business schools, where more than half of students tend to come from abroad, have a more international student body than US schools, where less than 10 per cent of students are from other countries. One respondent, who did his MBA in Europe, said he thought his network was bigger and broader than it would have been, had he attended a traditional on-campus programme.

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