Thursday 18th October 2018. Picture by Charlie Bibby/ Financial Times. Haris Jani, former finance director of Crystal Palace FC who has taken a sabbatical late in life to go back to school and study an MBA. Photograph shows Mr Jani in the stands of Selhurst Park, Crystal Palace’ stadium.
Harish Jani, head of finance at Crystal Palace football club, is taking an MBA in his 60s © Charlie Bibby/FT

Lifelong football fan Harish Jani, 68, says he has no plans to retire from his “dream” job as head of finance at Crystal Palace, a club in the English Premier League. But last year he persuaded chairman Steve Parish to allow him to take a 12-month sabbatical to achieve a major ambition: to study full-time for an MBA.

“I love literature and I like politics,” Mr Jani says. “But I felt that having spent a lifetime looking after finance it would be better to do a degree that used my skills.”

Last month, Mr Jani began his course at London’s Cass Business School, where he is almost three times the age of the youngest student. But he is far from alone in being an older MBA candidate.

The average age of students across the leading full-time MBA courses in the Financial Times’s global business school ranking has been at about 28 for most of the two decades that the list has been compiled. But within that mean figure there is some anecdotal evidence that the number of older students has been increasing, according to Andrew Crisp, co-founder of education research body Carrington Crisp.

In an age of longer working lives with the prospect of multiple careers, returning to full-time postgraduate education makes sense, Mr Crisp says. “If you expect to work beyond 70, then at 50, you have got another 20 years ahead of you. That is more than enough time to go off and start something.”

Once children have grown up and moved away, executives are also likely to have more disposable income to cover MBA course fees, Mr Crisp adds.

The average age of students on the full-time MBA course at Cass has risen from 29 in 2008, when the oldest student was 39, to 32 this year. A decade ago, there were 16 years between the oldest and the youngest student. This year the gap is 43 years.

As a young man, Mr Jani chose work over university, taking evening classes so he could pass his chartered accountancy exams. But his two daughters went to university, which spurred him to get a degree. “There is a sense of missing out on something,” he says. “Learning is part of life.”

Mr Jani hopes to finish his MBA ahead of his 26-year-old daughter, who has moved to Australia and has been accepted on an MBA course there.

“She has been giving me advice on writing essays,” he says. Once he has returned to Crystal Palace, he hopes his MBA will help him gain non-executive roles at charities and start-ups. He studied at Cass in part because of its proximity to the London tech cluster near the financial district and its links with that community of entrepreneurs.

Matthew Green spent 34 years as a consultant, helping multinational companies improve their internal communications and external marketing strategies. But as he prepared to turn 50, he decided to “treat” himself to an MBA at Henley Business School.

“It was a birthday present to myself,” he says.

His cohort included a vet who specialised in koala reproduction, a director of Budweiser and a diamond miner. Mr Green, who first graduated with a degree in graphic design in 1981, “was just a boy from arts school”.

He found the diversity of experience in the classroom enriched the debates over business case studies, which are the core of the MBA teaching method at Henley.

The 24-year age difference between the oldest and youngest student also added to the learning experience. “I felt a bit like an elder statesman,” Mr Green recalls. “I was learning much faster through people who were much more academically capable than me. Others on the course could think on the spot, but they weren’t street fighters like me. They were more corporate. So I felt there was a quid pro quo.”

“For many students who are at the early stages of their career, their focus is often on professional development,” Ms Beleska-Spasova says.

“Those who commence their study later in their careers often have different motivations, which may include more focus on personal development and also about developing others.”

The age range of students at Henley has widened slightly, with the oldest participants being 45 in this year’s intake. Course leaders say that they value diverse experiences that these older students bring to classroom discussions.

“It really benefits the students as they can learn from each other, no matter what stage they are in their careers,” Ms Beleska-Spasova says.

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