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Age, location, program length and specialization are all in flux, according to a global survey of MBA applicants.

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Traditional, two-year MBA programs – long the preferred model for graduate business education – are losing ground globally to alternatives that allow students to work while earning their degree, according to a new survey.

"North America is now the only region where the 19- to 24-month program length remains the most popular MBA format," reports Britain-based QS Intelligence Unit, publisher of the QS applicant survey released this week.

Weakening demand for the classic degree – the MBA is seen as a mature market – in favour of shorter executive and online MBAs comes amid prolonged slow growth worldwide and an uncertain job market.

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But Nunzio Quacquarelli, managing director of QS, says shifting patterns of demand present opportunities for Canadian business schools.

"Canadian business schools wishing to offer their MBA programs as an alternative to the traditionally longer U.S. format could consider concentrating on developing their existing shorter full-time programs in order to attract more international students, who clearly state a preference for the shorter format," he said. "At the same time, Canadian schools could perhaps also focus on developing internationally applicable distance and online MBA programs, as this form of study continues to grow in popularity – especially for international candidates unable to relocate to a new country or region."

For the first time, the survey of more than 4,500 prospective students who signed up for the QS World MBA Tour, a trade fair for business education, found a preference for shorter-running MBA programs. According to the survey, 45 per cent of respondents expressed interest in MBAs of 12 to 18 months, compared with 41 per cent who preferred those lasting up to two years.

Meanwhile, the survey points to a global shift in market share for students as the United States and Britain tighten entry requirements for foreign students and new business schools spring up across Asia.

The United States and Britain remain the two most popular destinations, with Canada in fourth place, but newcomers such as Singapore (in ninth), China (12th) and the United Arab Emirates (15th) that did not crack the list a decade ago are adding to their global market share.

The survey results are "interesting, but not surprising," says Shai Dubey, director of the full-time MBA program at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.

He says applications to his school's full-time 12-month program, which accepts about 90 students, are down about 10 per cent this year, a trend echoed at other schools. However, Queen's has one of the largest executive MBA programs in Canada, with three different streams offered annually.

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Prof. Dubey says a new trend, borne out by the survey, is the growth of executive MBAs at the expense of part-time MBA programs. One reason may be a stronger track record of success in executive programs, possibly because students stick together as a cohort instead of learning on their own.

At the Halifax-based Sobey School Business, affiliated with Saint Mary's University, dean Patricia Bradshaw says that MBA applications are down "slightly" this year.

But consistent with the QS survey, demand for specialty programs is on the rise. She cites one popular program, jointly run by Sobey and an industry association, for students to earn their MBA and their credentials as a certified management accountant at the same time. "It just keeps growing," she says, as does demand for an MBA specialty in finance.

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