The days have long gone when an honors degree from a good university could guarantee you the job you want – now if you want to stand out from the crowd you need to have something extra, and an MBA can be one of the most important ways of achieving this.
The world's leading, and most popular, business qualification, is the Master of Business Administration, or MBA as we know it. A generalist qualification designed to equip students with an understanding of all the major functions of a business, in some industries the MBA is now not so much a desirable attribute, but an essential qualification whose importance cannot be under-estimated.
Most notably this is the case in consultancy and finance where not having an MBA can be a barrier to career progression. Its importance is reflected in the fact that over 10,000 degrees were awarded last year.
Learning to adapt to the social and business cultures of another country is a key skill for those likely to work with overseas partners. The Association of MBAs reports that there is a growing trend among overseas executives to supplement their international business experience by studying for an MBA within the UK.
Britain is the world's major provider of MBA courses for students from abroad. One key factor: for most of the world, the language of business is English. That rules out a number of otherwise excellent programmes in non-English speaking countries.
Britain is at the crossroads of world trade, forming a part both of the "Anglo Saxon" business culture of the US and of Europe's plurality – its many languages, distinct business practices and ethics. It has unique access to a range of markets, including EMEA, North America, EC and emerging markets in Eastern Europe.
Business schools increasingly recognise that today's global company requires managers with a broader outlook. They have therefore made great efforts to internationalise their MBA programmes – by attracting overseas students, employing faculty members with overseas experience and forming effective links with business.
As a result of globalisation you can learn wherever you are by downloading teaching materials and communicating with tutors and fellow students on the Internet. E-business MBAs extend the length of time used for learning and are convenient for those who find it difficult to travel to the business school.
You can study the Open University Business School MBA from anywhere in the world, and the OU recently announced an agreement with the Chambre de Commerce et d'Industrie de Paris to translate and adapt one of its courses for French-speaking markets.
Warwick Business School's treatment of e-learning gives students the opportunity to work with, and learn from other students from across the globe. This month, it has launched an online course in e-business for their distance learning MBA students.
This gives international groups of students the opportunity to tackle real e-business issues and problems with input from e-business practitioners. Even though there is an increasing demand for e-business courses, Warwick claims that its use of on line learning will always complement face-to-face teaching, rather than reducing the amount of contact with tutors and other students.
Henley Management College, another institution with a track record in distance learning, now makes its MBA content available online to all students. Assignments are submitted electronically and several of Henley's MBA electives are also offered solely on the Internet.
"The shift towards e-learning and the development of real-time electronic activities, such as Web seminars, helps us to get closer to our roots," says Professor Ian Turner, the director of graduate business studies at Henley.
"E-learning enables us to operate across traditional country barriers and connect our students in different time zones around the world."
The reputation of the institution from which the MBA is gained is crucial. Employers do not simply ask whether an applicant has an MBA, they also want to know where it was studied. A prospective student needs to consider a range of factors including the size and culture of the School, programme content, quality of faculty and student body, facilities and location. The internationalism of a School, its administrative efficiency, success/failure rates and careers and placements services available should also be considered.
One of the most important functions of the Association of MBAs today is providing quality control by validating MBA-awarding bodies through a system of accreditation. Currently 36 of the 118 business schools in the UK have programmes that are accredited by the Association. Assessment criteria are rigorous and act as a kind of consumer protection for prospective students.
The value attached by schools to such accreditation is highlighted by the fact that many overseas schools, including those in Asia, are now seeking this mark of quality control. Foreign students should also note that in terms of reputation and prestige, many business schools in newly industrialised countries, especially in the Asia-Pacific region, do not as yet match European and North American ones in this respect.
A MBA differs from many other postgraduate courses in that it requires that you have prior experience of business. It is not normally appropriate to start this course of study immediately after your first degree, and most schools will require that you have 4-5 years experience of business.
The main questions a business school will ask will be about your CV, your qualifications, work experience and references. If your qualifications are borderline in terms of the demands the programme will make, you will be asked to do a GMAT – expect that a score of at least 550 will be required with an equal balance between the verbal and numerical scores.
Students with a good standard of spoken English will find it easier to adjust to living, working and studying in the UK. If your chosen school judges that your English is not up to standard, you will be required to take either an IELTS or TOEFL exam. It is important to remember that both understanding and being understood are vital since so much work takes place in groups and syndicates.
The Association of MBAs' website (www.mba.org.uk) is an important source of free information for the any prospective student and its annual Official MBA Handbook is essential reading. In addition to listing details of schools worldwide, it provides comprehensive advice for would-be MBA students, including the size and culture of the school, programme content, quality of faculty and student body, facilities and the availability of distance learning.