Nick Barter, MBA director at Griffith University in Queensland, sees a very clear trend: more and more students are opting for a part-time MBA.
Eighteen months ago when Barter started in his job, overseeing the university’s MBA program, two-thirds of students commencing the degree were part-time. Now it’s four-fifths.
Bob Gilliver, MBA director at the University of South Australia, sees similar movement. Over the past five years, the proportion of students doing the MBA part-time at his university has grown from 85 per cent to 95 per cent.
Other universities are not seeing the trend but still report high proportions of students who are part-time. The University of Technology Sydney (UTS) says 80 per cent of its MBA students are part-time. The University of Western Sydney has nearly all domestic MBA students studying part-time.
“People in greater western Sydney don’t have the luxury of full-time study,” says UWS director of postgraduate education, Laurel Jackson.
Why are students increasingly choosing to go part-time?
“The majority are part-time because they are working people,” says Damian Scanlon, MBA director at the University of Adelaide.
Scanlon points out that, as the Adelaide MBS requires three years of management experience, students who enrol are generally in the 30 to 45-year-old age range and have work and family responsibilities.
“You’re not in a position to take a couple of years out of your life,” he says.
Laura Bell, associate dean, academic programs at Melbourne Business School (MBS), agrees. “People are less willing to take a year or two years off work. We are getting large numbers doing the part-time MBA,” she said.
Geoffrey Garrett, dean of the Australian School of Business (ASB), thinks the growing reluctance of people mid-career to enter full-time study means the shift toward more part-time MBAs is global, except in the very exclusive top tier of the world’s business schools. Garrett has perspective on this since he is about to move from the ASB to become dean of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, regarded as one of the top three business schools in the US.
The University of SA’s Gilliver also sees the same trend. “Unless Australia’s top MBAs offer the flexibility which executives demand, they will find it impossible to sit on top,” he says.
How can students in a part-time course preserve some of the benefits of being part of a strong cohort and develop the cohesiveness and teamwork which comes in the traditional MBA with full-time commitment?
One way is the Executive MBA which, although part-time, concentrates work into week-long or weekend blocks of time in which all students participate intensively. Examples are the EMBAs offered by the University of Sydney Business School, MBS and Queensland University of Technology.
But, while part-time, they are not highly flexible, and require a commitment to attending at particular times. And the best EMBAs, such as those offered by the University of Sydney and MBS, are aimed at more senior levels of management, not the entry level manager that most MBAs are targeted at.
Business schools know students need more flexibility and they endeavour to give this to students in a part-time MBA while preserving as much as possible the benefit of being part of a cohort and bonding with fellow students.
For example, MBS does a week-long intensive at the beginning and end of its part-time MBA.
Students find these very attractive. Gilliver says whenever the University of SA offers a seven-day intensive in the MBA course, students come from interstate and even overseas.
He says students seek the balance between “the networking advantages of studying full-time, and the practical career-related necessity to study part-time”.
Nevertheless, business schools find flexibility trumps everything for most MBA students.
At Griffith University, Barter launched a “fully flexible” MBA last year, meaning students can switch at will between face-to-face and online classes. “This is pretty useful for people in terms of managing their family life,” he says.
The face-to-face time varies. Sometimes subjects are offered intensively in two full weekends, sometimes on consecutive days – Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday – and sometimes including the more traditional weeknight classes.
But the key thing is that if a student can’t make a face-to-face class, they can make it up online. Even on intensive days or weekends, students can come for part of the time and go online for what they miss.
“From a lecturer’s perspective, it interesting. It’s an extra level which keeps you on your toes,” Barter says.
But student reaction is good. For example, he’s heard back from students who are frequently out of Brisbane: “It works for me because I’m fly in, fly out.”
Does this mean the full-time MBA is dead except in the world’s very elite business schools?
Not at all. For example, at Griffith University, the full-time MBA is also growing in numbers.
Full-time MBA numbers are supported by students from overseas because international students are required to study full-time.
But they are not the only driver. The University of Adelaide’s Scanlon sees people who have taken a redundancy deciding to do a full-time MBA.
Also, the shorter the full-time MBA course is, the more likely it will attract students.
MBS’s Bell says the one-year full-time MBA is like a career gap year. “It’s much easier for an employer to handle a one-year absence,” she says.
UTS also sees students who have started a full-time MBA after a redundancy, then find a job and shift their studies to part-time. Flexibility is king.