“The best investment you can make is an investment in yourself.” And for legendary investor Warren Buffett, education is a more reliable route to wealth than Bitcoin. “The more you learn, the more you earn.”
Business education has seen a huge rise in demand since Covid-19 turned the world upside down last year, both for the full-time MBA and a wide range of specialized Master’s programs. But with so many of us coming to terms with working remotely, and schools themselves pushed towards digital delivery of their courses, there are more people than ever considering an online MBA or Master’s.
“The pandemic has changed people’s perceptions, and opened their minds to the possibility of remote learning,” says Federico Frattini, dean of MIP Politecnico di Milano. “We know that the future of work is going to be more agile and flexible, and far more reliant on digital technologies. The same is true for the future of learning.”
Thanks to people like Frattini, online learning at MIP Politcenico Di Milano is so much more than just Zoom and PowerPoint slides. He and his colleagues have built one of the best digital offerings for business education in the form of the i-Flex program. The Milan-based institution was one of only seven schools outside of the U.S. to have its digital alternative to the flagship MBA ranked in the Financial Times’ 2021 Online MBA Ranking, published in March.
Featuring alongside the business schools of Warwick, IE, Imperial and Durham, this year’s ranking of the top providers of Online MBAs marks a significant achievement for the Italian institution, with the i-Flex climbing to 8th place.
With the backdrop of the last 16 months of a global pandemic, it has been a boom year for the Online MBA market. Applications surged by 43.5% in 2020, according to the Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC).
What started out over thirty years ago as a niche alternative offered by for-profit institutions such as the University of Phoenix and Kaplan University, is quickly becoming a focus for top ranked business schools in the U.S. such as Michigan Ross, CMU Tepper, USC Marshall, Indiana Kelley and UNC Kenan Flagler.
But what about Europe, where ESMT Berlin, Trinity Business School, University College London and Vlerick Business School are adding to a growing list of top schools that are proving high-quality programs that are tailored to individuals who want flexibility to learn where and when they want. ESMT Berlin will welcome its first online class this fall after launching a global online MBA program with a highly disruptive price tag of just €25,000 or $30,000.
Below is a review of six of the best, with input from faculty and students on what makes the Online MBA such a compelling proposition.
Durham University Business School
Name: Online MBA
Duration: 24 months
Delivered by one of the UK’s leading providers, the Durham University Business School Online MBA has flexibility at its very core. Giving students the option to study all-online, or to take part in on-campus elements, the program is geared towards giving its cohort members as much freedom as possible. Durham’s digital alternative to the MBA ranked 7th in this year’s FT ranking, only placing lower than two other UK-based programs, the aforementioned Warwick Business School Distance Learning MBA and Imperial College Business School’s Global Online MBA.
Guided by the principle of flexibility, the program also allows students to choose a number of optional modules that align with specific career goals. According to Chris Williams, Director of the Durham Online MBA, the digital nature of the program opens it up to a global recruitment pool: “The Online MBA at Durham means that the students can pursue their study from anywhere in the world.”
Williams is also quick to point out the networking capabilities that come with the program, noting that students, irrespective of location, “are able to network with others on the program across multiple cohorts also across the planet.”
Beyond flexibility, however, it’s an unwavering focus on diversity and inclusion that defines the Online MBA at Durham University Business School. The institution has an impressive track record for valuing diversity, welcoming students from all cultures and professional backgrounds. And this responsibleapproach to admissions seeps into the fabric of the program itself, with elements of ethical business, responsible leadership and sustainability featuring in each module.
“Our mission is to develop and enthuse leaders and entrepreneurs who create, share and use knowledge to deliver equitable and sustainable futures around the world,” says Williams.
According to Jørgen Pivak, who graduated from the Online MBA in 2017, this is what attracted him to the program. Prior to his time at Durham, Jørgen worked at Nortura – a meat processor – and had little experience in business and management roles at the time of applying to business school. He notes that this left him genuinely concerned that his background would hinder his experience.
However he was quickly comforted to find that there was no ‘typical background’ among his peers. “As it turned out, rather than blanking out all my past professional experience, the Durham Online MBA program has merged it with first-class business education and transformed me into a well-rounded professional.”
IE Business School
Name: Global Online MBA
Fees: 50,000 Euros
Duration: 15 Months
Madrid-based IE Business School has long been renowned as one of Europe’s leading institutions for its solid foundation of business courses, as well as its specialization in entrepreneurship. So it was little surprise to many that, for the fourth year in a row, IE’s Global Online MBA ranked in the top two programs worldwide in the FT’s 2021 ranking.
However, impressive credentials aside, what attracts students year-in, year-out to IE’s Global Online MBA is, much like Durham, a heavy focus on diversity and sustainability. The Spanish institution truly understands that long gone are the days that applicants weigh a business school program up only against their educational agenda and career goals. IE realises that it’s also about aligning with personal values. With a gender-breakdown among its faculty that leads the industry – 44% of the academics at IE are female – and a first-place position in the Financial Times for corporate social responsibility, this business school practices what it preaches.
It was values likes these, which in turn cultivate an inclusive environment for students, that was pivotal for Stefania Rios when she was weighing up whether to apply to study on the Global Online MBA at IE. “The flexibility of the program is very important for students who are working and have other commitments and responsibilities such as new born babies, and for those living in remote locations,” she says.
Stefania, who was working in the Middle East at the time of studying, was able to balance both work and her MBA which, as a result, enabled her to directly apply what she was learning on the program to her career from the outset.
“One of IE’s core strengths is the continuous attention and enhancement of their online campus, making lectures and students feel connected in real time. This was important for students like me who are studying across the globe,” she says.
And despite the challenge of balancing her studies with personal and professional commitments, Stefania felt that the support received from classmates, lecturers and the program team was fundamental to her success, as well as that of rest of her cohort. When in Madrid for on-campus elements of the program, she even found that extra-curricular activities had been arranged to encourage bonding and networking among the students.
“IE understands the importance of networking, and due to the nature of the course being online, it was important to connect with the classmates, teachers and program management team during the face-to-face weeks.”
Imperial College Business School
Name: Global Online MBA
Duration: 24 months
Part of one of the most innovative and dynamic universities on the planet, globally-recognized for its contributions to the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), Imperial College Business School’s ability to fuse technology and business education has defined its approach to teaching for much of the institution’s history. Imperial’s online offering is the first international program to gain a ranking from Poets&Quants.
Even now, in a business education sector that has never been more adaptive, digitally-transformed and versatile, Imperial is still findings new ways of doing things to retain that edge on the market and, ultimately, deliver the best education to its students.
According to Markus Perkmann, Academic Director of the Global Online MBA, when it comes to online learning it’s all about ensuring the experience is as authentic as possible – something he’s confident Imperial delivers on:
“Particularly compared to some of the big US Online MBA programs, our cohort-based approach ensures that Online MBA students still get an authentic experience, delivered using a mix of technology and face-to-face meetings”.
Delivered via ‘The Hub’, an online learning platform designed and developed by the school’s in-house EdTech Lab which connects students with their peers and their tutors, and is accessible from any device in any location, Imperial’s Global Online MBA strikes a balance of being online yet still cohort-based.
Despite students being scattered across the globe, this emphasis on interaction and networking – aided by The Hub – could actually be better preparing cohort members for the increasingly globalised business environment. “Students who do the Online MBA are better able to use technology to bridge geographic distances, deliver high-priority deliverables in an ongoing basis, and work within teams that are spread across different fields of expertise,” says Perkmann.
For Glyn Estebanez, an alumnus of the Global Online MBA at Imperial, the chance to mix technology and business was too good an opportunity to miss. A General Surgeon in the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) before enrolling at Imperial, Glyn put his newfound skills and understanding to work almost instantly, opting to leave his career with the NHS and set up Nexus Labs, an online medical education company.
He says that he always planned to launch his start-up simultaneously to studying, and so the Global Online MBA fitting in seamlessly with his life was a huge benefit. And most importantly, Glyn says that the program at Imperial was perfectly tailored the career path that he was pursuing.
“I was always interested in the online Ed Tech start-up world and the GMBA really helped shape and develop the concept behind Nexus Labs. By the time I graduated I had successfully developed our first online medical education platform prototype and was ready to pitch to investors.”
MIP Politecnico Di Milano
Fees: 37,000 Euros
Duration: 24 months
MIP is Italy’s leading institution for online learning. Having shifted much of its focus to digital learning methods under the leadership of Federico Frattini, who took the lead on the development of FLEXA – the business school’s AI learning platform which doubles as a career coach for potential students, current cohorts and alumni – MIP offers its students the flexibility to decide where and how to access their lesson material from anywhere in the world and with any device.
“Digital is by no means a tool to deliver content, but rather the main driver of innovation and learning,” says Frattini. Thanks to FLEXA, which was also developed in partnership with global technology heavyweight, Microsoft, and with continuous improvement always being made, the i-Flex is extremely advanced. Federico Frattini describes MIP’s take on the Online MBA as a “breakthrough in the field of digital learning technology.”
Harnessing ground-breaking AI technologies, i-Flex also boasts of being able to keep students connected with one another despite being thousands of miles apart.
Mirko Fiore, who completed his international Flex Executive MBA from MIP in 2019, testifies to the incredible networking capabilities of the i-Flex. Before starting his course, Mirko expected to struggle to create bonds with his fellow cohort members because of the online nature of the program. However, to his surprise, he discovered that he not only created a good interpersonal relationship between classmates, but even developed real friends.
Alliance Manchester Business School
Name: Global Part-time MBA
Duration: 18 months or 24 months
An instantly-recognisable feature of the Alliance Manchester Business School Global Part-time MBA is the sheer diversity of its students. The business school itself boasts an immense international alumni network of 60,000 former students from 176 countries – a seemingly endless community of people to connect and work with.
Designed for experienced professionals from all industries, the Global Part-time MBA at Alliance Manchester requires 50% face-to-face teaching, a significant jump in the amount of on-campus time students are expected to participate in compared to the business school’s other online programs. This is because the unique program’s blended-learning format, giving students access to workshop residentials, as well as online content.
Few can question the claim that Alliance Manchester’s Global Part-time MBA delivers an immersive international experience for its students. With workshops being hosted at six global locations, those studying on the program gain precious skills outside of their own home markets, as Owen Lloyd found out.
According to Owen, studying on the Global Part-time MBA provided an “unprompted international understanding of various business functions outside of my own core ones as well as lots of examples of good and bad examples of work outside my immediate industry.”
In a business environment that’s becoming more interconnected every day, and with more scope than ever before for pursuing career opportunities all over the planet, programs likes this provide an intense but vital learning experience, Owen suggests.
“The MBA is great if you plan to work abroad, it makes you realise that business is the same all over the world, albeit with different legal infrastructures. Every multinational company knows what an MBA is so it really does open up doors.”
Warwick Business School
Name: Distance Learning MBA
Duration: 24 months
Warwick Business School’s Distance Learning MBA is one of the most sought after in the market. Warwick is widely regarded as one of the leading schools in Europe for its innovation in content delivery, as well as its academic research.
The school’s Distance Learning MBA was one of the first of its kind, and has now been running for 30 years. Even with three decades of experience under its belt, the UK-based institution is always looking to perfect its craft. This is reflected in student experience, with the FT’s 2021 ranking reporting that around 80% of those who studied on the Distance Learning MBA felt they had accomplished their aims once completing the course. Meanwhile, graduates of the program see their salaries rise, on average, 35% in three years of completing their MBA.
With numbers like that, it’s no surprise that Warwick invest so much time, effort – and money – into its online offerings. Speaking to Pietro Micheli, Course Director for the Distance Learning MBA, he says: “We invest heavily in edtech every year. For example, we are currently trialling a new virtual reality learning experience. Our learning platform is a bespoke design by our eSolutions team and provides a virtual classroom for our students where we run lectures, knowledge groups, online case studies and hold rich interactive learning resources.”
The sheer levels of investment in edtech is reflected in the facilities available to students at Warwick: “We have a fantastic e-learning department that now has two film studios to record lectures, interviews, webinars and discussions. We are further developing in-house content such as online business games, where students can simulate what happens when they make strategic decisions as a manager of a business,” Micheli notes.
While rankings results are great, it’s the students who truly reap the rewards of such heavy investment in online learning. “The distance learning MBA at Warwick enabled me to engage in lectures in real time and speak directly to guest speakers, professors, and program teams. I was also able to watch archived sessions if I was prevented to attend the live session,” says Janine Rinninsland, a creative buyer who studied on Warwick’s Distance Learning MBA.
For Janine, alongside the state-of-the-art technologies at her disposal, it was the opportunity to study at the school of your choice, without having to give up friends, family, or an existing career.
“If you already have a management position it is difficult to leave the job and start studying a full-time MBA. I enjoyed the flexible online program which allowed me to work full-time as a manager and to follow my maxim of life-long learning.”
So, what are the requirements to study at the top ranking Online MBA program on the planet? Distance Learning MBA applicants are like other prospective MBAs – they have to meet the same entry requirements, as well as being aspirational in terms of professional and personal development, says Micheli.
“We are looking for driven individuals who will add their own unique perspective to create a diverse cohort in terms of cultures, professions, sectors and experience.”
Author Matt Symonds is a co-founder of Fortuna Admissions, a leading MBA admissions consulting firm, and a writer for Forbes.com. His book “Getting the MBA Admissions Edge” was sponsored by McKinsey, Goldman Sachs, BCG and Bain. Symonds was the S of QS Quacquarelli Symonds, publishing QS World University Rankings and running the QS World MBA Tour. With Poets&Quants founder John A. Byrne, he hosts the CentreCourt MBA Festival,