Growth in options for second degrees makes choice harder

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But with choice comes the problem of deciding which kind of course to take and where to take it.

The growing number of people sporting an MBA qualification has made it important for students to attend a reputed school and to customise their degree with the right set of electives.

Among those with the best reputations for MBAs in Europe are Insead at Fontainebleau, the London Business School and IMD in Lausanne.

But with prices topping 27,000 for a two-year course, they are not cheap, though the name and network of alumni will almost certainly guarantee the student a lucrative position after they graduate. These schools tend to offer general MBAs, though these can be tailored by selecting from a wide range of elective courses.

The London Business School, which was ranked first in Europe and eighth in the world in a Financial Times survey of international schools earlier this year, allows candidates a choice of 75 elective courses in its MBA course.

Inger Pederson, director of the Executive MBA programme at LBS, says: 'We find that a lot of people in the finance sector feel too specialised in the position they have and want to move into more general management.'

Part-time courses are gaining in popularity. Pedersen says that a large proportion of candidates, who often have more than five years' work experience, have financial commitments such as a mortgage and a family that make it impossible for them to give up work, even if the rewards at the end of the course are higher. Students on the part-time courses tend to be slightly older than those on full-time courses.

LBS offers a two-year part-time course, which requires attendance twice a month on Fridays and Saturdays.

'It's a traditional MBA programme designed for people who are in work,' says Pedersen. Of its intake of 120 students a year 22% are from the financial services sector.

Henley Management College, in conjunction with the Financial Training Company, has taken the flexibility issue a step further with its Flexible Evening MBA. Henley's course director Jane Mackenzie says: 'The course was developed in response to the fact that people want to continue working but feel that they need more flexibility than even a part-time course offers.'

Students have to attend one evening a week and 'participate' in another session, though this can be done through teleconferencing, video-conferencing or computer conferencing. The use of technology also appeals to some employers, with IBM in Europe recently switching its distance learning programme from the Open University to Henley because of the integral use of technology during the course.

Another advantage of a part-time course is that it will usually be sponsored, at least in part, by the candidate's employer. Pedersen says that more than 80% of LBS's part-time students receive some form of sponsorship.

But there have been complaints from some sponsors that after paying out for the course and allowing their employee to take a significant amount of time off work, there is a tendency for graduates to jump ship at the first possible opportunity after graduation.

The schools are making efforts to counter this criticism. Mackenzie says: 'We try and make sure that they deliver value to their organisation while they are doing the MBA.' This is achieved through project work that is related to the student's organisation.

Pedersen says that some sponsors include pay-back clauses in the contracts to stop graduates leaving as soon as they have finished the course. An interesting idea but one that in practice is difficult to enforce - if the MBA graduate no longer wants to work for the company there is little point in enforcing the terms of the contract.

An alternative to a general MBA is to take a more specialist course. The International Securities Markets Association Centre at the University of Reading offers three postgraduate courses: an MSc in international securities, investment and banking an MSc in financial regulation and risk management, and an MSc in financial engineering and quantative analysis.

Programme director Adrian Bell says: 'We found a need for a more specialist qualification than an MBA. Rather than offering a general MBA, we are purely focused on the financial sector.' ISMA's course appeals to students trying to break into finance. It includes hands-on sessions in simulated dealing rooms with Bridge-Telerate and Reuters systems in what Bell calls 'experiential learning'.

Bell says: 'A lot of our students are people who find that without a specialist degree they cannot get their foot in the door.' The institution is supported by ISMA.

LBS also offers a specialist Masters in Finance course, tailored to prepare students for a career in finance. Core courses cover the basic topics such as financial accounting and analysis and capital markets, but students also have to choose from a diverse range of elective courses such as advanced forecasting methods in financial engineering.

For those targeting specific jobs the courses can be even more focussed. The Investor Relations Society runs a course training investor relations professionals, or MBA students, to cope with the more financial nature of IR.

Whatever the choice, an MBA or second degree can give a significant boost up the career ladder. LBS says the top starting salary for a 1998 MBA graduate was 100,750, with an average starting salary of 54,695.