This article was first published in the June 2015 UK edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

Online MBA programmes are ideal for working professionals who wish to continue their education while being able to advance in their career. Not only are there cost advantages over the traditional campus-based, full-time MBA programmes, but studying online means less compromises in your personal and family life and more flexibility.

As such, and in order to vie for the best candidates, the quality of online MBAs continues to rise as the accredited providers up their game to meet a set of more diverse student needs.

With so many institutions offering courses, deciding which one is right for you can be rather daunting. A good place to start is to have a look at rankings from trusted sources, such as the 2015 Financial Times ranking of online MBAs (see box), which is based on surveys of schools and of alumni who graduated in 2011. Schools must be internationally accredited, and at least 70% of their programme content must be delivered online.

Taking – and indeed retaining – the number one spot in this year’s rankings is Spain’s IE Business School. The reason for IE’s success is also a good reason for taking an MBA in the first place, whether online or not: money. The Spanish business school’s alumni earn the highest average salary, at nearly US$153,000 (£102,000), a rise of 43% on their income on graduation three years ago. In fact, salaries for MBA students in general look positive.

A recent survey from the Graduate Management Admission Council, administrators of the GMAT entry test for business schools, found that most employers in 2015 plan to increase starting-salaries at or above the rate of inflation for MBA employees.

The majority of the top 10 business schools in the online rankings remain in the same position as last year, including Durham University Business School at number six, which has invested heavily in its IT infrastructure in order to compete with the very best. 

David Kilgour, programme director of the Global MBA Programme, explains: ‘Durham University Business School is a dynamic institution. As one of the leading business schools in the world, Durham is one of a small number of triple-accredited schools, and demand for our graduates is high, attracting students from 130 nations.

From a student perspective, online courses can have a number of advantages. Students can study at their own pace and can stay at home and keep their job, which means there should be less debt by the end of the course. Students spend less time travelling to classes; and they work in an environment that they know but where there are new experiences available. They can also choose to meet fellow students at regular residential seminars.’

Online advantage

Kilgour also highlights the unique advantages that online courses offer. ‘They can be more innovative than taught programmes through the use of information technology and teaching methods like flipped classrooms and phone and iPad applications. Blogs, tweets, podcasts, webcasts, webinars and online chats mean that students can be kept up to date with developments in their subjects 24/7, and they can do this within their time constraints.’

But he is quick to point out that anyone thinking of taking an online course because they believe it to be less work than the alternatives may be in for a nasty surprise. ‘One word of caution for students is that the online courses are just as demanding, sometimes more so, than traditional courses and students have to be able to devote the time – between 10-20 hours per week – and be well-organised and able to work independently to achieve success.’

Of course, it isn’t only the students who benefit from this evolving teaching model. From a business school perspective, online courses can also bring a significant advantage. ‘Increased student numbers and a more diverse student population can be developed by going online, and the reach and reputation of the university can be improved by moving into new geographic areas,’ says Kilgour.

‘Developments in research can be communicated quickly and built into courses, and the use of information technology can help teaching staff develop skills and force them to try new ways of communication and delivery.’

The biggest climber in the FT rankings is the UK’s » Bradford University School of Management, up three places to ninth overall. Its rise was also helped by the joint highest alumni salary increase of 43%, up from 30% last year. 

The rankings also reveal some interesting statistics about the true value of an MBA in real terms. They show that, at start of their MBA, nearly three-quarters of the graduates were professionals, with 12% holding senior manager or executive roles. Three years after graduation, nearly 30% were in senior manager or executive positions, followed by professional (27%), other director/vice-president (16%) and department head (15%).

The top sector that graduates entered was finance and banking at 13%, followed by the industrial and information technology/telecoms sectors at 12% each. 

Depressingly, there remains a gender divide in salaries, with men earning US$130,000 (£87,000) on average, US$22,000 (£14,700) more than women, although the rise in women’s salaries is 37% compared with the men’s 30%, so the gap should close if that trend continues. 

So as competition for applicants heats up in the virtual classrooms, what fallout might there be for institutions offering traditional campus-based programmes? It seems that those relying heavily on revenue from executive and part-time programmes are on slightly shaky ground; they may have to revise their business model and adapt to serve a global population that has begun to expect to be able to work and study at any time and from any location.

Beth Holmes, journalist