Britain's employers have long had a fairly low opinion of that pinnacle of achievement in management education, Master of Business Administration. The MBA degree is widely held to be overly academic, theoretical and divorced from business reality. The business schools are strenuously trying to lay these criticisms. Since the late 1980s, many schools have moved towards single-company and consortia MBAs. But has the new relevance and practicality had to be paid for - by loss of quality, perhaps, or transferability?
Certainly, it's difficult to conceive of a qualification more relevant to a particular business or job than a company-specific MBA. Lancaster University Management School has been running an MBA programme specially tailored to the needs of British Airways since 1988. More than 120 students have completed the 30-month course, which combines project work and classroom studies. 'The course material is designed to interlink with what is happening at BA,' explains programme director Julia Davies. 'As part of the organisational behaviour course, for example, we might look at culture change within BA.'
Juxtaposing theory and practice in this way is intended to bring direct and immediate benefit both to BA and to the MBA students. 'BA has been impressed by the impact on the organisation and on managers' development,' claims Davies. 'MBA students challenge what has often been taken for granted, and help BA look beyond where it is now. ' From the students' point of view, the qualification is said to be comparable with MBAs gained elsewhere.
But single-company MBAs are not universally approved. The Association of MBAs (AMBA) does not accredit single-company courses, and some leading schools like Cranfield and London Business School have declined companies' proposals to lay on company-specific degrees. Professor Terry Hill, dean of the full-time MBA at LBS, explains: 'In single company courses it's very hard to guarantee sufficient numbers of suitably experienced and qualified people over time. The danger is that the acceptance criteria alter, and the value of the qualification falls.' LBS also sets great store by the international flavour of its open MBA programmes, and it's hard to match that kind of international mix in a single company.
Professor Leo Murray, principal of Cranfield University Business School, has similar reservations. 'One of the great benefits of a good MBA is not just the skill and knowledge that are gained but the exposure to students from a mix of backgrounds and a diverse range of experience. Another potential problem with a company-specific MBA is that the company may have too much control over the course content.' However Murray fully accepts the need for closer links between companies and centres of management education. 'We are in the business of providing the best products for companies and students. These should range from tailored to more general courses.'
The consortium MBA is an attempt avoid the 'incestuousness' of the single-company programme. Nottingham University Business School, for example, runs an MBA programme attended by 30-40 students a year drawn from a consortium which includes Boots, British Coal, British Telecom and Thorntons, the confectioners. The sponsors naturally have an influence over the composition of the course, which tends to ensure a strong in-company project component. But as long as the consortium has several preferably very diverse members, their variety should help to preserve a degree of balance.
City University Business School's Management MBA serves a consortium of more than 20 organisations including IBM, Ford, Sainsbury and NatWest Markets. Dr Ronnie Lessem, City's academic development manager thinks it is unique - although results are what count, not rarity. 'The MBA is the means, not the end,' says Lessem. 'The end is to provide catalysts who can help develop knowledge-creating or learning organisations.'
Ken Cohen, a services buyer at J Sainsbury, recently completed his Management MBA after three years' study and project work. 'I not only gained knowledge but the skills to enable me to do something with that knowledge. Whether it's working in a company that sells baked beans or computers, those skills are transferable.' Sainsbury's career development officer Andrew Turner is equally satisfied: 'We gain from the highly practical projects and from the personal development of our managers.' Clearly, some employers have found a degree they can be enthusiastic about.