The budget cuts may be causing much belt-tightening across higher education generally but for many of Scotland's business schools the financial crisis has led to something of a boom
The budget cuts may be causing much belt-tightening across higher education generally but for many of Scotland's business schools the financial crisis has led to something of a boom.
Evidence suggests applications for MBA courses have risen in the past two years as increasing numbers of managers look to enhance their CVs and employability ready for when better times return.
"For many individuals, downturns provide an opportunity to change career paths, the sector they work in or even where they live and the MBA is the perfect platform to achieve that," argues Sharon Bamford, a former academic at Aberdeen Business School who is now chief executive of the Association of MBAs.
Alick Kitchin, director of Edinburgh Business School, which has seen a 20 per cent increase in applications for some of its courses over the past year, agrees: "In times of economic hardship people often choose to invest in themselves and their careers and we certainly have seen that translate into higher demand from people looking to study."
According to a recent jobs survey, those who have already taken that opportunity to strengthen their academic qualifications are set to reap the benefits. The survey of more than 5000 companies around the world on their MBA recruitment plans found that after an expected downturn following the financial crisis, last year saw a strong rebound. This year hiring is expected to return to pre-crisis levels. In the consulting sector alone, MBA graduate recruitment increased by 19 per cent during 2010, and is predicted to rise by a further 37 per cent during 2011.
But while demand for MBAs and management education in general has risen, the economic downturn has also led to reluctance from many prospective students to risk leaving the security of employment to study full time.
"I suppose it's a sign of the times that there is a growing trend towards part-time courses and blended learning where students don't have to be sat in a classroom," comments Ron Livingstone, head of business school for the University of the West of Scotland. "The majority of our students are sponsored by their employers and, given the economic conditions, it has become increasingly difficult for them to be able to have key people away from the office on a course.
"Open learning options are proving very attractive to managers who want to study for an MBA but don't want to give up their job to study or spend a lot of time sitting in lectures," he says.
The university's executive MBA, launched in 1999, is a two-year part-time open learning programme aimed at experienced managers from both the public and private sectors. "It uses a lot of online technology but students also benefit from spending time with other managers in day sessions held during weekends," explains Livingstone.
According to Bamford, the changing nature of work and increasing globalisation are also factors in potential MBA students looking for more flexible learning options. "Managers are becoming increasingly mobile in their careers. If they suddenly get a posting to China they want to know they will be able to continue with their course but perhaps study in a different way."
Mammed Bagher, programme Director for Edinburgh Napier University Business School's MBA programmes, argues that universities need to ensure they react to the demands of the market. "Conditions change very rapidly within the global economy and it is important for business schools to reflect that change and to continuously look at what they offer both in terms of content and in the way they deliver courses."
A review of the Business Schools MBA programmes ahead of the start of the 2011-12 academic year has led to the development of a new online global MBA for students unable to take part in traditional classroom environment. The programme will be supported by live online tutorials and the lectures will be filmed for students to view on demand. "We're also investing a lot in creating an online community where students will very much feel part of the wider university network without physically being here," says Bagher.
In light of challenging economic conditions and the pressure on many businesses and organisations to become leaner the business school has also decided to launch an executive part-time flexible MBA programme. The executive MBA programme has been developed to complement the existing suite of full-time MBA programmes. Bagher says: "The Edinburgh Napier executive MBA programme is intended to develop managers and senior staff in organisations as they focus on building and developing dynamic, effective organisations that will be customer focused, agile, humane and yet fit for comparison and challenge, in regional, national and international arenas." Bagher says by taking advantage of summer trimesters it's been able to offer its executive MBA programme over a two-year duration without any impact on the integrity and quality of the programme.
As the number of courses on offer in the UK and abroad continues to grow, specialisation has helped some of Scotland's business schools carve out a niche in an increasingly crowded MBA market.
Aberdeen Business School's oil and gas management MBA, for example, was the first of its kind when it was launched three years ago and now attracts students from around the world. As well as covering general topics such as change management and leadership, around half the course is focused on oil and gas with specific modules covering areas including contract law and health and safety.
At the University of Edinburgh Business School, MBA students can add more focus to a general programme through a Business School Certificate in areas of specialisation including finance, carbon management, entrepreneurship, strategy or family business.
For smaller universities in particular, developing specialist courses can be a way to stand out in the crowd. "There are just so many MBA courses around now that smaller universities risk getting lost in the noise. It is a very competitive market so universities like ours need to play to our strengths and constantly look at what we offer," says Richard Bent of Queen Margaret University (QMU) in Edinburgh.
Although QMU runs a traditional MBA course it also offers MBAs in specific industry sectors such as hospitality management. The university has also recently launched a new MSc in international management and leadership, partly in response to heightened interest in corporate social responsibility following the financial crisis.
"We have taken quite an unusual approach for the course by removing the dissertation element and replacing it with what we call 'community, impact and practice'," explains Bent. "As well as looking at the academic theory, students have to design, implement and then actually achieve something with a not-forprofit organisation. It also ties in with the increasing trend for the university to reach into the community."
The demand for UK business education from overseas students has also continued to grow. More than 80 per cent of all students on full-time UK MBA courses are now from overseas with an estimated £2bn being generated by business schools from foreign students.
The breadth of the interest from international students is demonstrated by the latest statistics from Edinburgh Business School at Heriot-Watt University. The school's MBA programme was recently listed as the largest in the world in a survey of distance learning and online courses with some 9000 active students and over 13,000 alumni in 150 countries. Its programme is now delivered in six languages including Chinese, Arabic, Russian and Hebrew and last year the school launched a scholarship scheme across Africa giving 250 people the opportunity to study for an MBA.
Business schools are also increasingly working closely with major companies at home to develop bespoke staffdevelopment programmes. Babcock International has recently extended its contract with Strathclyde Business School in Glasgow for the Babcock Academy which has seen over £2m invested over the last five years in executive education. Delegates from across the engineering support group study on programmes aimed at senior managers with an emerging leaders course also recently developed.
Professor Susan Hart, dean of Strathclyde Business School, says: "Our partnership with Babcock has been particularly successful and we have seen the executive education course we provide go from strength to strength over the last five years."
Paul Fox, a Babcock International construction manager, recently completed the executive development programme and said the experience had been "a hugely positive one". "There was quite a strong focus on strategy and I have to say that is probably the most important thing I took from the sessions. The course dealt with the theory behind establishing and achieving strategies. I found it really useful and by putting the combined experience of those on the course to work we could look at creating a model that could be used back in the 'real world'."
At Edinburgh Napier University companies including Perth-based utility Scottish & Southern Energy have been taking part in an MSc in Advanced Leadership Practice course. Course leader Mike Fiszer believes while MBAs have a valuable role to play it is increasingly important that companies and organisations also look at how to prepare individuals for leadership.
He likens MBAs to the theory part of the driving test with the MSc he heads up as the practical side. "When I did my own MBA when I was in the private sector it was very useful - not least because it helped me understand the language of business when dealing with different parts of a corporation. But while MBAs give you functional understanding they don't really develop leadership capability," he points out.
Fiszer believes one of the key attractions of the course is helping managers develop insight into their own strengths and weaknesses. "The best leadership teams I've worked with are ones where there's no 'envy culture'. The chief executive may have come up through finance but is not trying to compete with the finance director - they took them on because they knew they were better at it than they were. An important part of effective leadership is realising the areas where you're only ever going to be average and making sure you hire someone who excels in that area."
Although the MBA is now more than 40 years old, its supporters believe it is still a highly valuable qualification. "In many ways I think MBAs are more relevant now than they ever have been," says Edinburgh Napier's Bagher. "They promote critical thinking and get individuals to look deeper into how and why things are happening. As we recover from recession and deal with budget cuts I think that kind of approach will prove invaluable."
Although it is more than a decade since Sharon Bamford studied part time for her MBA at Aberdeen Business School, she believes it has influenced her day-to-day thinking ever since. "I look back on it as being hugely beneficial. It changes your approach and the way you look at things and that stays with you forever."
While she welcomes the huge overseas interest in UK MBA courses, Bamford argues the relatively low percentage of indigenous business leaders and managers studying on them is a cause for concern. "We really need to look at what the competition around the world are doing. Our future managers and leaders will be competing with incredibly bright, able and educated competitors from China, India, Latin America and so on. We need to be preparing for what will be an increasingly global economy."
Leading Scottish business academics
Professor Susan Hart
Dean of the University of Strathclyde Business School
Hart was appointed to the post in 2008 after previous spells serving as Strathclyde's head of the department of marketing and vice-dean of research.
Areas of expertise include innovation and product/service development, marketing, and competitive success and marketing performance measurement. She has written well over 100 articles and papers as well as numerous books and publications.
Hart has also worked as an advisor and researcher in the private sector for organisations including RBS and McDonalds and is an advisory board member of Ecole de Management, Paris; Kemmy Business School, University of Limerick; and the Universiti Putra, Malaysia.
Professor Sara Carter
Head of department, Hunter Centre for Entrepreneurship
Recognised as one of the leading academics in the field, Prof Carter was awarded an OBE for services to women entrepreneurs in 2008.
She served as a of the UK's Women's Enterprise Task Force and chaired the Swedish Presidency workshop on women's enterprise at the EU Charter Conference in Stockholm.
She is the author of books including Women as Entrepreneurs and is an editor of the Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice Research Journal.
Professor Keith Lumsden
Director, Edinburgh Business School
Prof Lumsden is credited with developing the concept of a distance learning MBA while he was at Stanford University in the US where he taught in the graduate school of business for more than 15 years. He pioneered many of the techniques that form the basis of the MBA courses, particularly self-assessment questions and problems, case studies and computer simulations.
Lumsden has taught executive seminars and programmes throughout the world and leading companies who have used his companies materials and methodology include American Express, Barclays, BP, IBM, Marks & Spencer and Rolls-Royce.
Professor Peter Cameron
Director of CEPMLP, Dundee
Prof Cameron is director of the Centre for Energy, Petroleum and Mineral Law and Policy at the University of Dundee and professor of international energy law and policy.
He has been a regular adviser to organisations including the World Bank, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific and many governments in developing countries.
He was the leader of several European Commission-funded projects aimed at promoting the ratification of the Energy Charter Treaty.
Cameron is also a prolific author of books, articles and papers on international energy law issues.
Professor Zeljko Sevic
Dean of Caledonian Business School
Before becoming a full-time academic Prof Sevic served as a deputy minister and head of the youth department in the Serbian Government.
He has held a visiting academic position in countries including Australia, Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Poland, Slovenia and the US.
Research areas of interest include public sector reform and financial market efficiency and his work has been translated into eight languages.
Professor Farhad Noorbakhsh
Professor of development economics and head of business school, University of Glasgow
After studying economics at the National University of Iran Prof Noorbakhsh continued postgraduate studies at the University of Birmingham before joining the University of Glasgow in 1980. He has since been a research collaborator with a number of international organisations.
He was elected as a fellow of the Human Development and Capability Association (HDCA) in 2007 in recognition of his contribution to research in the field of human development.
Professor Angela Black
Head of business school, University of Aberdeen
Professor Black, who studied financial economics at the University of Dundee followed by a PhD, has previously worked at the Universities of Dundee and St Andrews.
She specialises in areas including analysis of asset pricing models and exchange rates and has carried out research on subjects ranging from share price volatility to house prices.