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WORLD BUSINESS

North America opts for custom mode

By Ian Grayson for CNN

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The top five business schools in the U.S. account for almost 7,000 fulltime MBA students.

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FT's Executive MBA Rankings
1. Wharton, U.S.
2. Kellogg, U.S.
3. Chicago GSB, U.S.
4. Stern, NY, U.S.
5. Fuqua, Duke, U.S.
6. Hong Kong UST, China
7. Columbia, U.S.
8. Instituto de Empresa, Spain
9. London Business School, UK
10. Tanaka, Imperial College, UK
Source: Financial Times 2005

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EMBA SNAPSHOT

Executives taking the top EMBA courses in the U.S., Europe and Asia have average salaries of around $130,000 to $200,000.

A typical EMBA student is likely to be aged in the early 30s, with 6-10 years of working experience.

A top EMBA course can cost $100,000. Customized courses start at a few thousand dollars.

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(CNN) -- It was the birthplace of modern executive education programs, and now North America is at the forefront of the changes sweeping through the sector.

With corporations seeking qualified graduates but at the same time wanting to improve the skills of existing employees, North American universities and business schools have responded by evolving their offerings.

Intensive short courses are enjoying a rapid rise in popularity, as are custom education courses designed for individual companies. Closely watched by academic institutions in Europe and Asia, North American institutions are reshaping the executive education industry.

During the past couple of years, many industry commentators have predicted the end of the classic MBA course as the preeminent training vehicle for young executives. Pointing to rising costs and a growing reluctance to commit to two years of full-time study, many believed North America would experience a decline in student numbers.

However recent research tells a different story. According to the QS TopMBA.com Index, demand for MBA graduates increased across the United States by 15 percent in 2004, compared with the previous year. Researchers found strong indications that this trend will continue for the next two years.

As corporations increase spending following the economic slowdown of 2001 and 2002, some recruiters report they expect demand for MBA graduates to rise to pre-downturn levels by next year.

The research found that, throughout the world, salaries for MBA graduates have increased by 27 percent during the past eight years, reflecting the increasing competition to attract talented executives.

John Fernandes, president and chief executive of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, a peak body representing more than 500 educational institutions around the world, believes North America retains a strong place in the global executive education sector.

He says that, while there have been some reports about falling numbers of MBA admissions, there is still a strong future for the concept.

"Just in the United States, there are nearly one-half million MBA students, and that number should reach one million by 2012," he says. "While the number of full-time MBA applications has dipped, I argue that these occurrences are blips in a cycle and not a trend."

Fernandes says that while full-time MBA enrollments may have dropped, this is being more than countered by rises in executive and part-time courses. He says in the United States, only about 24 per cent of MBA students are presently undertaking full-time courses.

As well as the MBA, many North American business schools are also increasing their emphasis on both open and custom short-course programs.

For example, New York-based Columbia Business School is heavily promoting its range of open executive programs which run from two to 26 days in length. Course topics range from creative strategy and leadership techniques to negotiation and decision making skills.

The school also stages numerous custom courses each year for companies in a diverse range of sectors. These courses are either designed from scratch for a specific company or built from selective components taken from open courses.

Columbia Business School executive education associate dean, Ethan Hanabury, says such courses are offered in recognition that not all executives are looking for long, expansive programs covering multiple skill areas.

"They are not looking to be transformed, they are not even looking to identify strongly with the school. They just need to know something about a specific topic," he says.

Other North American business schools are following a similar line, putting increasing resources into both short open and custom courses.

Wharton Business School emphasizes its Executive MBA course, which it says provides similar scope to traditional MBA courses, but has been designed for participants already in the full-time workforce.

All on-campus work is concentrated into two-day residential sessions conducted on alternate weekends during a two-year period. Areas covered include finance, marketing, and management skills.

At Stanford University, about 30 percent of all its courses are now in a custom format, reflecting the continued increasing demand for such products. The university's programs comprise a combination of lecture sessions, group exercises and study sessions designed to encourage participants to think about specific challenges within their own organizations.

By evolving the classic executive education models of the past, North American business schools seem confident they can ride out the downturn in full-time MBA enrolments and continue to grow.

Rather than watching student numbers dwindle, they believe their flexible short courses and custom programs will allow them to attract high-caliber executives from around the world.

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