Let's agree on one thing: everyone disagrees about the best business school to attend. Look at the Financial Times rankings, for example (opposite), and you'll see Harvard in pole position for its full-time MBA course. Consult The Economist and you'll spot Kellogg at the top. If you don't fancy studying in the States, Business Week rates Queen's in Canada, while Forbes will point you to INSEAD in France. Speak to faculty members or deans, and they'll probably rubbish the idea of a 'number one' business school altogether.
So, once you've decided to do an MBA, how on earth do you work out where to do it? There are currently about 1,500 business schools offering MBA courses across the globe, and they all vary wildly in cost, quality and entry requirements. Picking one that suits you can be a confusing, even mind-boggling process. The MBA is a huge investment in terms of time, cash and emotions, so if you want to get the most out of your course, you need to treat it like any other business project. Review it fully in advance and research the options carefully.
Where should you start? Given the controversy over the value of an MBA in today's business climate and the doubts hanging over the quality of some courses, it is important to pick a 'premier league' business school that will dazzle poten-tial employers.
So two things to consider right at the start of your decision-making process are the MBA rankings lists and accreditation.
The rankings lists are a good way to gauge a school's reputation. Just as we have league tables for the best cameras to buy or the best Isas to invest in, the business school rankings lists will give you a quick snapshot of the market.
But be warned: these tables have sparked an astonishing amount of debate within the business school community. Last year, for instance, Wharton School in the US announced that it would no longer provide the e-mail addresses of students and alumni to publications conducting rankings lists.
'They are a bad tool for prospective students,' cried the dean, Patrick Harker. 'Rankings give a one-size-fits-all, numerical assessment of a school's performance, with unclear methodologies.'
If you are going to use the rankings lists, use them intelligently. 'These rankings need to be interpreted with care,' says Dr John Mapes, director of admissions at Cranfield School of Management, 'as they tend to reflect the preconceptions of the compilers and are based on the premise that all MBAs should be the same.'
Each list relies on its own unique set of criteria, so make sure you understand exactly how the schools are being judged. In other words, read the small print. As an example, let's take two of the most popular MBA league tables: The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) and the Financial Times.
The EIU publishes an annual list of the world's top-100 MBA programmes in Which MBA? (mba.eiu.com). Out of all the rankings tables, the EIU claims the greatest focus on the student market, rating schools based on the opinion of current students and alumni who graduated in the past three years. These rankings need to be interpreted cautiously for two reasons.
First, graduates have no way of comparing what is on offer at other schools.
Worse, this practice encourages students to flatter their schools to improve their showing in the rankings.
Second, such a student-centric methodology relies heavily on the co-operation of business schools to circulate questionnaires. When institutions such as Wharton and Harvard decided to refuse access to students and alumni, the EIU was forced to draw on its database of past responses, which raises a question mark over consistency and fairness.
The FT (www.ft.com), meanwhile, publishes three rankings lists each year, spanning full-time MBA courses, part-time courses and executive education programmes. Here, schools are judged on a set of 20 objective measures, where most of the weighting is on the percentage increase in a student's salary three years after graduation.
Again, this kind of emphasis can distort the overall picture. No wonder, for example, US business schools are rubbing shoulders at the top of the list, while their European counterparts are struggling to get their names in print. American students tend to sign up to MBA courses straight after graduating from their degrees, whereas European students tend to wait until they have a few years of 'real-world' experience under their belts.
The leap in salary for a 24-year-old who bags a job in a private-equity house straight after an MBA is likely to be far greater than for a 34-year-old marketing director who decides to use the MBA to set up his own consultancy business.
This focus on salary increase also encourages the less scrupulous business schools to play the 'rankings game', introducing programmes and policies simply to boost their position on the list. Recruiting students from low-income countries such as China and India, then directing them into the financial services market in a western economy would inevitably improve a school's place on the list. But would it improve the actual educational product? The answer, quite clearly, is no.
Mike Page, dean of Rotterdam School of Management, says it would be a 'tragedy' if all business schools slavishly followed the dictates of the rankings lists. 'Imagine if we all turned away young, bright consultants from our doors simply because we are scared that they may decide to redirect their talents after the programme to managing and leading in the NGO sector.'
So are the rankings lists a valuable metric or are they simply a gimmick?
Are prospective students hindered, rather than helped, by them? Although they may influence potential employers, they touch only the surface of what's going on in a business school. 'By all means use the rankings to identify your shortlist of possible schools, but keep a sense of proportion,' says Mapes at Cranfield. 'Remember that rankings lists are produced by journalists in order to sell newspapers and are based on some fairly suspect data.'
An over-reliance on the MBA league tables can therefore be dangerous and you shouldn't automatically write off a business school because it fails to get a mention in this year's lists. But you do need a way of guaranteeing that a course is up to scratch. This is where accreditation can help.
Accreditation is a form of consumer protection for students, rather like a kitemark. To gain accredited status, an MBA programme has to meet certain minimum standards for a variety of attributes. These include a high admission criteria for students, a large and varied student group, a wide curriculum and a sizable faculty. The process includes a two-day 'peer review' by a panel of experts and academics from other business schools, designed to check that the promises made in the MBA prospectus are being kept in practice.
'Accreditation acts as a very good threshold for quality,' says Julia Tyler, director of the MBA programme at London Business School. 'It tells you that a business school has passed the "health and safety" test - and it's more objective than rankings.'
The accreditation body in the US is the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB International), in Europe it is EQUIS and in the UK the Association of MBAs (AMBA). Most reput-able schools will have been accredited by at least one external body, and a handful of international business schools - including London BS and Manchester BS in the UK, Vlerick Leuven Gent Management School in Belgium and INSEAD in France - are triple-accredited.
Of course, neither accreditation nor rankings will guarantee that a school is the right one for you. In the end, choosing a business school is an emotional as well as an intellectual decision. Be clear about why you want to do an MBA in the first place and what your objectives are. The league tables and lists of accredited schools will certainly help you to whittle down your selection, but your research needs to go beyond that.
Visit the schools on your shortlist and speak to graduates in order to gain a realistic and up-to-date picture of the programme. Remember that an MBA is no longer an automatic passport to prestige and prosperity; competition for the top jobs is extremely fierce and employers are looking for even more ways to distinguish between candidates.
So whatever you do, choose your business school carefully and make sure your MBA really sparkles on your CV.
CHART TOPPERS - Financial Times (2005) 1 Harvard Business School 2 University of Pennsylvania: Wharton 3 Columbia Business School 4 Stanford University: GSB 5 London Business School 6 University of Chicago: GSB 7 Dartmouth College: Tuck 8 INSEAD 9 New York University: Stern 10 Yale School of Management Economist Intelligence Unit (2004) 1 Northwestern University: Kellogg 2 Stanford University: GSB 3 Dartmouth College: Tuck 4 Harvard Business School 5 IMD (International Institute for Management Development) 6 University of Chicago: GSB 7 Columbia Business School 8 University of Pennsylvania: Wharton 9 IESE Business School 10 New York University: Stern CHECKLIST - What is the reputation of the school? - Has it been accredited? - How long has the school been running its MBA? - Do you meet the minimum entry requirements? - Who is going to be teaching you? - Who will your classmates be? - Which companies recruit from the school? - Can you talk to students past and present?
STRATEGIC CAREER MOVE
Fergus Drake used his MBA as a springboard out of the not-for-profit sector and into management consultancy. Formerly a humanitarian aid worker for Tearfund's disaster relief team in sub-Saharan Africa, Drake (now 31) admits that his MBA was 'absolutely strategic' to bagging his current job as a senior consultant at Deloitte. 'I couldn't have made the career change without it,' he says. His ultimate goal, in the long term, is to take some hard management skills back to the increasingly professional relief and development sector.
Drake picked Cranfield School of Management because of its international reputation and its slightly older student mix. 'There are quite a few courses in the US where the average age of the student is 25 to 26. Without disparaging these courses, I am a very strong advocate of people coming to an MBA with a bit more real-world experience under their belts. They have more to contribute.'
Half of Drake's £24,000 tuition fees were paid for him by the school's FeeShare scholarship, which he won on the basis of his voluntary-sector background. But the MBA still burnt a hole in his pocket. 'I lived on campus, which set me back around £10,000. On top of that, I went overseas four or five times during the year, including a work assignment in Russia and an MBA football tournament in the US. If you really want to get stuck into the life and soul of an MBA, it won't be cheap.'
Cramming into one year the sort of content that American business schools take two years to cover, Drake found the process pretty gruelling. 'The rigours of the course were certainly very different from organising a feeding programme in the active war zone of southern Sudan, but no less challenging.'
Although the MBA has enabled Drake to double his salary and change his career path, he is quick to point to the other perks of the qualification.
'I got a huge amount out of the course, not only academically but also in terms of the diversity of students and the network of people. An MBA gives you life skills, not just a better job or pay cheque.'