Jim Duffy: An MBA is a big cash layout – is it worth it?

The MBA at Cambridge is considered one of the best. Picture: Nick Ansell/PA Wire
The MBA at Cambridge is considered one of the best. Picture: Nick Ansell/PA Wire
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Nothing beats experience in business at whatever level you pitch in at, writes Jim Duffy.

Around 30 years ago, an exciting new masters degree was all the rage. I recall a friend of mine swooning at how his girlfriend had just completed her MBA degree and was now set for corporate stardom.

MBA stands for Master of Business Administration. Very quickly lots of ­universities clambered to offer an MBA to willing graduates who would stump up the cash for the “gold dust” degree that would open up employment doors and stand out on the CVs.

But, I wonder if the MBA teaching or delivery industry became more lucrative for universities than it did for participants. As the bog standard MBA became mainstream and well, kinda boring, new MBA programmes were kickstarted and created to entice employees and employers to spend more money to ensure they had the best MBA credentials that money could buy. Some MBAs were strictly one or two years full-time. Then part time MBAs came into play, followed by distance learning MBA courses, where students could learn at their own pace.

Universities are generally very good at business development on campus, so the competition really hotted up to ­capture potential participants into spending reams of cash on top MBAs.

Marketing taglines included mention that their MBA grads get top jobs at the best FTSE 100 companies.

Of course, we cannot forget the MBA tables compiled to show which was the top performing in terms of jobs secured, salaries secured and general bragging rights. Indeed when I Google top UK MBA programmes today, up pops the top ten.

This is a great selling tool for universities to use on their marketing material. Accordingly, it is also a great way to bump up the cost of the MBA offered. And while we are on cost, let’s pause here and do a bit of analysis. Generally considered one of the best, no less, is of course the ­Cambridge University MBA. A full time gig here will set you back £51,000. London Business School is a whopping £75,000. In Scotland, an MBA at Edinburgh University will set you back £29,100. Strathclyde Uni will be a cool £28,000 with Glasgow Caledonian tipping the scales at £14,500. These degrees are not cheap, but are they still relevant?

Nothing beats experience in business at whatever level you pitch in at. Only by ­getting one’s hands dirty can one ­really learn the rules of business – usually by making mistakes. Many entrepreneur types would scoff at the MBA, stating it is not fit for purpose, nor is it relevant. But, I would argue the other way. Do universities overcharge for MBA programmes? I ­cannot answer that one.

I guess the answer has to come from those on these programmes or who have completed them. The proof is in the pudding. But there is a solid argument for participating in a really good, well-taught, well-structured MBA that is relevant and up to date.

I do not think for one minute that deciding not do an MBA is a lightweight decision. Then there is the studying, reading, assignments, exams etc. This is hard work and requires commitment and a lot of grey matter. What’s more, once you have committed and have written a cheque for a fair wad of cash, then it’s not easy just to give up. There is a lot at stake for the individual who steps up to this challenge.

Not everyone can be an entrepreneur, nor do we want this. A good slug of entrepreneurs coming through is needed, but they too require great people to work with and the MBA pool throws up great people. So, there is a place for them in start-ups and corporates. I guess the question of anyone graduating with an MBA is what you feel you can bring to your firm as a result of your study. The costly piece of paper with MBA on it is all well and good and definitely relevant. It’s how it’s used and built upon that matters, I would argue.

l Jim Duffy is co-founder of Moonshot ­Academy and author of Create Special.