The business of MBAs

An MBA is a stepping stone to a management role in business. They are expensive and very hard work, but they remain a qualification that will make employers sit up and pay attention.


It is competitive to get into, extremely hard work and it can be very expensive indeed. Why, then, is a Masters in Business Administration (MBA) such a desirable qualification?

“I get asked that all the time,” says Dr John Loonam, director of MBA programmes in Dublin City University. “An MBA is geared to facilitate people who have a strong record of experience to make a transition into management. It develops strong leadership capabilities because it is preparing people to take on leadership roles.”

There are generally two types of MBA. A full-time MBA tends to have a younger cohort with perhaps less experience than the intake of a part-time executive MBA. For the executive MBA, your experience is a key part of what you bring to the programme. Participants study part-time and continue working for their companies, applying what they learn in their day-to-day working lives. They tend to be at or very close to management level already.

There is undoubtedly a salary and career benefit associated with doing an MBA. Recent figures show that graduates of the full-time MBA programme in the UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School had seen their salaries increase by an average of 63 per cent three years after finishing the course. Likewise, graduates of the executive MBA programme (who would have been working while studying for their qualification) saw an average rise of 53 per cent. Many business schools collate these statistics while others can relate huge amounts of anecdotal evidence of MBA graduates winning promotions and increasing their salaries.

In this way, an MBA is seen by many prospective candidates as a canny investment.

Fees can vary widely. The Smurfit School MBA and executive MBA cost an eye-watering €29,500 each while an MBA in IBAT College Dublin will cost €4,000 per year for two years. While employer funding of MBAs suffered somewhat during the downturn, more and more students are coming with financial backing from their employers, according to Loonam.

Accreditation and rankings are important to business schools when trying to attract students, particularly international students, to their courses. When a business school is accredited by the London-based Association of MBAs (AMBA), the US-based Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) and the European Quality Improvement System (EQUIS), it means it has achieved a status known as triple accreditation. Just 59 business schools worldwide are triple-accredited. Both the UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School and the Open University are among them.

Where an MBA is concerned, accreditation is a good indicator of a certain standard, but a lack of accreditation from the associations mentioned above does not necessarily mean that the MBA is not up to a particular standard. All MBAs are different and it is up to the candidate to find which one will best suit their needs.

People doing an executive MBA tend to have a high level of experience and the MBA is certainly seen as a stepping-stone to a leadership role. Because participants are working in companies while they are studying, they will often apply what they are learning to their own working environments. Dr Alma McCarthy, executive MBA programme director in NUI Galway, believes this is a huge strength of the course that she heads up and cites real-life learning and practice as a key feature.

“Students work with companies in various industries to shape and guide their strategy through real-life consulting projects,” she says. “Many of our MBA students, who already work in management roles, see the MBA as the stepping-stone to promotion and career advancement, and we do everything we can to facilitate that.”

The value of the class group on an MBA programme is something that comes up again and again. “Our students this year have an average of 12 years of workplace experience,” says McCarthy. “They come from a hugely diverse range of backgrounds – engineers, physiotherapists, marketing people, you name it – and they bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to the programme. It makes for very rich discussions. Participants learn so much from one another.”

Proximity to a college campus isn’t necessarily a requirement for those seeking to do an MBA. Interestingly, the largest MBA provider in Europe is online. The triple-accredited Open University Business School has been running an MBA programme for more than 20 years. It seems a strange concept to have an online MBA when many cite the class group and the experiences therein as the single most valuable aspect of the MBA, but those in the Open University argue that just because a course is online, it doesn’t mean participants don’t have class groups and opportunities to interact and network.

In truth, the Open University MBA is a blended programme with residential events throughout the course in which students come together. In addition, the online aspect allows a great deal of interaction even though it is not all face-to-face. Devendra Kodwani is the outgoing director of MBAs at the Open University. He argues that sometimes the quality of interaction can be better online than in a traditional classroom.

“Our interaction is far more intensive and sustained,” he says. “You can retain conversations online. In addition to that, you don’t have to respond immediately in an online environment. You can consider your response first. We find that interaction between students extends far beyond the classroom.”

According to Conor Horgan of the MBA Association of Ireland, there is a trend internationally for MBA programmes to target specific areas or industries. In Ireland, however, according to Horgan, while each programme has its own strengths, the MBAs are still reasonably open and deliver general leadership skills and training that are applicable to all manner of industry and business, rather than zeroing in on specific sectors.

When choosing an MBA, while cost and accreditation are important, a lot will come down to practicalities, according to Loonam. Those studying the executive MBA need a programme that will suit their schedule and location.

For those driven individuals, however, an MBA can really be worth the effort. “The executive MBA is a very applied master’s, and companies see nothing less than a transformation in the individual. This is what leads to promotion and this is what makes the hard work worthwhile,” says Loonam.


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