Examining the Other Dba: The Role of Diploma Programs in Graduate Business Education in the United Kingdom

Article excerpt


Within the last decade, as both undergraduate and graduate business programs in the United States have acclimated to adjustments in their curricula that address the now widely accepted need for an "international" component (National Business Education Association, 1995), many articles describing the curricula and design of business programs at colleges and universities outside the U.S. have appeared in the education literature. The implication, by virtue of geography or by virtue of student demographics, is that graduate business programs outside the U.S. tend both to cultivate and project auras of greater interna tionalization, a condition often envied by faculty members at American programs, where the largely local ("land-locked") student populations may unfortunately come across as "insular," "parochial," "domestically minded," or even ethnocentric (James, 2002; Klein, 1995; Limaye, 2000; Pettijohn, 2000).

Possibly in order to simplify cross-cultural comparisons, most recent articles have focused on MBA programs in international settings. According to Kerkovsky, Janicek, and Drdla (2002, p. 134), for example, the MBA "represents an internationally recognized standard of academic qualification in the area of management" and thus provides an easily comprehensible yardstick for international and intercultural comparison. Articles have examined graduate business education in Australia (Gniewosz, 1995), China and Russia (Mockler, Chao, & Dologite, 1996), Poland (Spillan & Ziemnowicz, 2001), and the Czech Republic (Kerkovsky et al.), among other countries. Nevertheless, Mathews, Rivera, and Pineda (2001) still perceived a lack of information on curricula for business programs offered outside the U.S.

While adding to the corpus of material on gradua te business programs abroad, then, this article also combats the perceived paucity of information on such programs. These tasks are accomplished by offering a window into the functions and curricula of two business programs in the U.K.: diploma and master's programs in business administration. Even though the concept of the British MBA indeed translates back across the Atlantic with relative ease, diploma programs in business administration may still be little known or understood in the U.S.

How can this lack of information or understanding be explained? Perhaps the educational system of the U.K. receives (comparatively) little press in the U.S. because the U.K. is simply not considered to be "foreign" enough to garner much attention in international education circles. Perhaps, because the U.K. and U.S. share a common tongue, American scholars may feel little need to supplement the materials that British scholars have written and published about their own educational system. Or perhaps, finding little within the British system that they wish to emulate, American critics choose to focus on education in other countries where they can easily identify more promising (or controversial or innovative or remarkable) methods or approaches. Underlying these possibilities may be the (mis)assumption that the educational systems of the U.S. and U.K. must be similar because, linguistically and politically at least, the U.K. appears more closely aligned with the U.S. than with much of continental Europe. Assuming too many similarities, though, can easily lead to misunderstandings, even when graduate education-or "postgraduate" education as it is termed in the U.K.-is the focus. By initially concentrating on a degree scheme that maybe unfamiliar to most Americans, then, a main purpose of this article is to alleviate some potential misunderstandings about graduate business education in the U.K.

One potential misunderstanding may stem from differing acronym usage: While "DBA" typically refers to the "doctor of business administration" degree in the U.S., in the U.K., at least, the same initials can carry a significantly different implication, as they often stand for "diploma of business administration." This article considers the history and purposes of diploma schemes in Britain, specifically as the diplomas relate to the now more popular MBA degree. The DBA and MBA programs at Cardiff Business School, Wales, U.K., are used as examples in order to demonstrate differences between not only the DBA and MBA schemes but also between MBA programs in the U.K. (and, by extension, the rest of Europe) and in the U.S. Purists may cry for further qualification, though: Indeed, "Britain" or "the U.K." could, in some places in the following discussion, more accurately be replaced with the more specific descriptor "England and Wales," considering the somewhat different approaches to education in Scotland and Northern Ireland. But the differences on the graduate levels discussed in this article are not so great as to warrant a narrowing of semantic or geographical focus for this article.

Comparisons between foreign and American graduate business programs are useful, first, for faculty and administrators who are interested in aligning their curricula with a more "international" model-or who may be developing international internships or exchange programs (Glenn, 2002), still rare at the level of professional graduate studies. Second, such comparisons benefit practitioners wishing to understand better the qualifications of their international (or internationally educated) staff.


In Britain, the DBA is typically quite different from the doctor of business administration degree, the qualification for which the initials usually stand in the U.S. and elsewhere (for example, Australia: see Whiteley, 2001). Responding to potential appellative confusion, the Association of Business Schools (ABS), which represents 102 leading business schools in the U.K., recently recommended that the abbreviation "DipBA" be used for diploma programs in business administration (Association of Business Schools, n.d.), freeing "DBA" to signify the doctor of business administration degree now offered by certain schools in the U.K. (Anderson, 2002). Cardiff, perhaps because its successful doctoral candidates in business are awarded Ph.D.s, does not yet follow this suggestion, even though it is a member of the ABS. And since Cardiff's diploma program is one focus of this article, the abbreviation DBA is used throughout to refer to the diploma in business administration.

Initially offered in Britain under the rubric of the diploma in management studies (DMS), which was the most widely held graduate management qualification in the U.K. from the late 1960s to the early 1990s (Heath, 1985; Lock, 1996), the DBA is awarded after satisfactory completion of a nine-month course that is similar in structure to the MBA but without a research project and thesis. (Most formal master's degrees in Britain, including the MBA, involve the completion of a thesis, which is usually called a dissertation. Also, most full-time master's degrees in the U.K., again including most full-time MBA programs, are designed to be completed within one calendar year of matriculation: DBA programs are thus only three months shorter.)

Like practically all undergraduate programs in the U.K. (usually with three-year durations), diploma programs involve coursework, and performance on comprehensive final exams determines whether one passes and is thus admitted to the degree. At certain schools, such as Oxford and Cambridge, the diploma curriculum may be identical to the final year of requirements for undergraduate study in the same field. Core courses for the DBA typically cover the key areas of organizational behavior, marketing, strategic management, and quantitative methods (statistics and economics) and are often followed by more specialized electives.

For students who eventually intend to pursue master's degrees, diploma programs in Britain maybe viewed as counterparts to preparatory or remedial studies in the U.S. (though without a negative connotation). Such students typically enroll in diploma programs when they do not have sufficient background preparation to enroll directly into master's programs in the same field. In some cases, in fact, students who apply to master's programs but whose records are not adequate enough for immediate admission may be admitted to the diploma programs instead, with the opportunity to continue with master's studies if requirements for the diplomas are successfully completed. DBA students, therefore, are frequently aiming to prove to the faculties of their schools that they will be prepared for (and are capable of) more advanced graduate-level work. And because the British tradition of graduate education typically involves undertaking-historically, at the same institution as the undergraduate degree (Rudd, 1975)-a specialized academic master's degree after an undergraduate degree in a cognate area (Lock, 1996), most students who enroll in a DBA program as preparation for later enrollment in an MBA program, at least at Cardiff Business School, are overseas (international) students.

In the British educational system, then, diplomas are often viewed as intermediary degrees that fit mid-way between undergraduate degrees (which are typically, but not always, prerequisites to the diplomas) and master's degrees. Diploma programs are common in fields ranging from theology to journalism to computer science. While diplomas may be terminal, they are often pursued by students with little or no prior training in a subject who plan to continue on to master's degrees (or eventually doctorates) in the new field. Or, in other cases, diplomas may be pursued by students with experience but no formal training in vocational areas as a means for improving employability and prospects for promotion (Schofield, 2000). Testifying to the historical importance placed on vocational education and training in the U.K. (Campbell & Petty, 1993; J. C. Scott, 1991), Cardiff Business School offers two specialized diploma schemes for professionals : a diploma in port and shipping administration (a nine-month, full-time program) and a diploma in automotive retail management (a two-year, part-time program). A third diploma program, a diploma in research methods, is completed by doctoral students during their first year of studies at the business school. Note that diplomas in other European countries have different functions and implications: Both Germany and France, for example, have many levels of diplomas (called "Diplom" and "diplôme," respectively).


The first university instruction in business education in Britain began at least by 1901 at Birmingham University (Lock, 1996), but graduate business schools were not established in Britain until 1964 at London and Manchester after a government initiative to create "centres for excellence in teaching and research of business" (Latreuille, 2001). While the two earliest programs followed the American MBA model (two academic years of study), most subsequent programs embraced a 12-month format, referred to by Kerkovsky et al. (2002) as the "European" model. Originally awarding Master of Science (MSc) degrees in business, schools began retitling their programs as MBAs in the 1970s (with a few exceptions). Today, more than 100 British institutions offer MBA programs. And while many schools offer modular, part-time, or distance-learning MBA programs that are completed over the course of two or three years, the norm in Britain is for the MBA program to be completed in 12 months of full-time study.

While the traditional research-based master's degree in the U.K. is pursued entirely via the tutorial method-with no mandatory coursework-and is awarded after satisfactory completion of a dissertation, the MBA is an exception to this pattern. The dissertation component is maintained, but the MBA in Britain is largely a "taught course," meaning attendance at lectures and discussions is required (or at least expected), and performance on group projects and written exams is also a factor for successful completion of the degree. The MBA curriculum at Cardiff, in fact, is largely an extension of the same areas covered in the DBA coursework: The three core programs, which are followed by elective courses, are (a) organization and personnel (organizational behavior, personnel management, and industrial relations), (b) strategy and the environment (strategic management, managerial economics, and marketing), and (c) information and control (financial management, business statistics, and operations management).

While London Business School maintains the two-year full-time MBA (at a cost comparable to business schools in the U.S.) and the full-time MBA at Manchester is 18 months, Cardiff Business School follows the normative 12-month pattern, with the academic year beginning in mid-September. At Cardiff, the first seven months of the program, divided into fall and spring terms, involve the core coursework and are followed by comprehensive exams. During these two terms, students attend an average of 14 hours of lectures and 4 hours of syndicate meetings (discussion sections) each week. Two months of elective coursework (also including exams) and an extensive group project follow. The final three months of the program are devoted to conducting research and composing a 20,000-word (maximum) dissertation on an independent research project.

MBA students performing substandardly on the comprehensive written exams at Cardiff Business School, however, are typically not permitted to continue with the research project and dissertation component. Interestingly, and depending on their situations, some of these students may be given the opportunity to leave the program early with DBAs, thus demonstrating the higher prestige and worth that has come to be associated with the master's degree over the diploma-as well as the higher assumed skills and abilities of MBA recipients over DBA recipients. Being awarded a DBA as a veritable consolation prize, then, seems quite similar to the pro forma granting of a master's degree to would-be doctoral candidates in the U.S. who do not pass their comprehensive exams and thus do not proceed to the dissertation stage. Unsuccessful master's candidates in the U.S., however, generally leave their programs empty handed, as no standardized "lesser" graduate certificate is universally recognized or awarded.

The Cardiff MBA program feels the most like a typical British master's degree program during the final three months : Students may set their own schedules and work at their own paces. They need not remain in Cardiff, in fact, and many students undertaking projects that involve business practices in their home countries may return home for a week or more, some coming back to Cardiff only in time to submit their completed dissertations. Some students, especially those who are farthest away from home, may take advantage of the relaxed schedule to tour Europe, a luxury that is not feasible during the coursework components of the program due to the heavy schedule of classes, assignments, group projects, and exams.

If program fees in Britain are the result of a Veblen effect (where presumed value or worth of a program is in direct proportion to the program's cost; see Leibenstein, 1950), the fact that the fees for the DBA at Cardiff currently amount to less than 60% of those for the MBA for overseas students is also telling of the relative statuses of the DBA and the MBA. In 2003-2004, MBA tuition for overseas students at Cardiff was equivalent to approximately US$22,300 (at £1 = $1.65), while the DBA cost $12,900. Home students (U.K. or Commonwealth citizens) pay approximately 75% of the overseas rate for the MBA and 85% of the overseas rate for the DBA. Nevertheless, even for home students, the MBA remains the most expensive professional master's degree at Cardiff as well as at most other British institutions (Lock, 1996).

At Cardiff Business School, admissions decisions into the MBA program are made on the basis of previous academic performance, work experience, and indications of motivation (largely assessed through a personal statement and letters of reference). However, neither an academic degree nor work experience is absolutely essential for admission. Students lacking undergraduate degrees are considered for admission if they have equivalent professional qualifications or substantial work experience; but students without work experience are expected to have completed adequate undergraduate preparation (which typically means an undergraduate degree in business or a related field-for example, economics, statistics, or maritime transport) (Cardiff Business School, 1999). Furthermore, for overseas students who have not had a substantial portion of their education taught in English, TOEFL scores of 570 or higher are required for admission to the program.


In line with many other MBA programs in the U.K. (Cox, 2000), Cardiff Business School hosted students from over 39 countries on the 1999-2000 MBAprogram. Indeed, overseas students traditionally comprise the majority of students in the Cardiff MBA program (see Gump, 2003a, 2003b). In a sample of 201 of the 335 full-time MBA students enrolled in the 1999-2000 program, 190 (95%) came from outside the U.K., and English was a native language for only 18 of these overseas students. Students are therefore exposed to potential opportunities for internationalization, to a certain extent, by the very diversity of their classmates (see Beck, Whiteley, & McFetridge, 1996; Coleman, 1997), though effective intercultural interaction with and by foreign students is, of course, not always simple and straightforward (Hinchcliff-Pelias & Greer, 2004; Wang, 2004). For the majority of Cardiff MB A students, then, the entire program constitutes an "overseas learning experience" (Kashlak, Jones, & Comer, 1999, p. 12).

Lock (1996) believes the high percentage of overseas students enrolled in British MBA programs is reflective of the weakness in demand for MBAs by British citizens: In order to fill their classes and expand their programs, business schools in the U.K. must aggressively market and recruit from abroad. This variation on otherwise "need-oriented educational programs" (Kaynak & Schermerhorn, 1999, p. 2) results in larger international student populations at British business schools than at, for example, their U.S. counterparts. Investing students with cross-cultural sensitivity and "global competence" (Sherman, 1999), consequently, should be less difficult at schools with student populations like that of Cardiff Business School. Indeed, after an extensive survey of business schools around the world, Kwok, Arpan, and Folks (1994) found that the faculty and programs of European business schools were "considerably broader and deeper in terms of internationalization than their counterparts in the United States" (p. 621). (See also Kwok & Arpan, 1994.) But Carnall (1991, p. 312) cogently warned of mistakenly assuming that student diversity implies a program is "international": "a national programme delivered to members drawn from a range of nationalities remains a national programme."

With the vast majority of students hailing from outside the U.K., the MB Astudentbody at Cardiff is decidedly international; yet further investigation into the curriculum and faculty (e.g., Cobb & Barker, 2001; McConeghy, 1992) would be necessary before a judgment on whether the Cardiff MBA program is inevitably international in its scope could be made. Even though the full-time Cardiff DBA program also draws students from abroad-and, ironically, is comprised of more international students than home students, the diploma course in business administration, unlike the MBA program, does not cater to an internationally recognized standard. Thus the DBA course remains tailored to a more domestic audience and represents, perhaps, lingering attachment to a program of study and a qualification that may eventually lose its marketability in the U.K. One solution may require further rethinking and evolution of the concept and role of the DBA, coupled with aggressive marketing to international students in Commonwealth states, such as India and South Africa, where the DBA may retain some of the cachet it maintained from the mid- to late-20th century in the U.K.

The recent history of higher education in Britain has been full of organizational and curricular changes, some quite dramatic. P. Scott (1984, p. vii), in fact, described the early 1980s as a "period of exceptional turmoil in British higher education"; he is not alone in his assessment (see also, for example, Schuller, 1995; Shattock, 1996). Reflecting on the changes, Maskell and Robinson (2001), in fact, quite critically discount the whole of business education as betraying the historical purposes of a university by having "nothing to do with either thought or usefulness" (p. 86). Yet, if nothing else, as the economic impacts of business schools are recognized by universities across the U.K., including such bastions of scholarly tradition as Oxford and Cambridge, the schools and programs will continue to grow. What, then, will become of the older systems? Will it therefore be only a matter of time before curricular reform completely supercedes the DBA qualification with the MBA? A longitudinal study of enrollment trends in various graduate business programs and degree schemes offered by universities in the U.K. would prove a logical next step for further research and investigation, before the original implication of "DBA" in the U.K. becomes a footnote in the history of graduate business education.



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[Author Affiliation]

Steven E. Gump

Department of Educational Organization and Leadership

University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

[Author Affiliation]

Steven Gump, Illinois Distinguished Fellow and Letitia Walsh Fellow in the Department of Educational Organization and Leadership at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, received an MBA from Cardiff Business School in 2001. He earlier wrote about characteristics of Cardiff MBA students in the spring 2003 issue of International Education. Some of his other recent publications have appeared in College Teaching, The Journal of Language for International Business, the Journal of Scholarly Publishing, and the Phi Delta Kappan.