Henley Business School cancels flagship MBA course

Henley Business School has cancelled its full-time MBA for the 2019/2020 academic year, diverting applicants to other masters degree programmes after demand for the one-year course collapsed.

The move, described as a “pause” on Henley’s website, is the first time a big UK institution has stopped taking applications for this flagship business school course.

But it follows a trend in the US, the birthplace of the MBA, where highly ranked schools, such as Iowa’s Tippie College of Business, have axed their programmes to focus instead on specialist degrees and bite-sized executive education courses.

Applications to US business schools fell 6.6 per cent in 2018, the fifth successive year in which a majority of schools suffered a decline in applications, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council, an exam body.

The number of MBA students at British business schools rose in 2017/18, according to figures compiled by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, a data-gathering organisation. The increase was helped by the introduction of the apprenticeship levy, which employers have used to send senior executives on such courses.

However, the 16,605 students on UK MBA courses that year was still 8 per cent lower than in 2014/15.

Henley’s last intake of 26 students was down from about 40 students previously, according to Elena Beleska-Spasova, head of post-experience postgraduate programmes at Henley.

“Candidates in that early career stage are looking for the best value for money,” she said, adding that many opt for MBA “alternatives”, such as short courses run by new specialist training providers, where they can hone their skills in areas considered most useful, such as public speaking, data analytics and time management.

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In contrast to its full-time course, applications for Henley’s part-time executive MBA course rose 3 per cent this academic year with about 200 students spread across four intakes. Many of these students were funded through apprenticeship levy contributions, Ms Beleska-Spasova said.

Henley has been a top 100 school in the FT’s annual ranking of European business schools for several years, most recently rising one place to 32nd in the list, largely on the strength of its part-time executive MBA programme.

Declining interest in traditional MBA courses is blamed on fees rising into the tens of thousands of pounds and increasing pressure on the target audience — those in their late 20s with about six years’ employment experience — to keep working rather than return to full-time study.

People in this age group prefer specialist business masters degrees because they are shorter, cheaper and can be taken straight after a bachelors degree, according to David Asch, a director of business school accreditation body EFMD Global.

“Except for the very, very top schools, like Insead and London Business School, business schools are struggling to get people to pay the premium associated with an MBA brand,” Mr Asch said.

The part-time MBA market is “reasonably solid”, he added, because it was aimed at those in the middle of their careers, who are more willing to pay to update their skills because of the fear of being overtaken by a more digitally savvy generation.

“These are not people at the Uber end of the employment market. However they feel their position is precarious because of the perception that you need to learn new skills like data analytics to get a decent job with a good employer,” Mr Asch said.

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