Even in difficult times an MBA can open doors and boost job prospects
But some of the most highly educated business brains with MBAs contributed to the global crash. How relevant are they now?
At a time when Ireland is bankrupt and many of the country's business leaders have taken a tumble, the demand to study business and to join a new corporate elite has never been higher.
Colleges across Ireland are reporting a surge in applications for their Masters in Business Administration (MBA) degrees that are still seen as offering a guaranteed promotion to senior management posts and a big salary even at a time of global economic upheaval.
The degree, first offered by the Harvard Business School over a century ago, is "a natural bridge" towards making a career change, according to Ann Torres, the director of the MBA programme at the Cairns Graduate School of Business at NUIG in Galway.
Ms Torres, who has an MBA from the University of California Berkeley, says the degree gives business executives "an edge" and can increase their value to their employers substantially.
"Someone who is self-employed could use it as a springboard to move to another company or industry. Or if you are an engineer it is a good way to move into the management side of the business," she says.
Over the decades universities have noticed that during periods of economic depression the calibre of students applying not only for MBAs but for other post-graduate degrees tends to be higher than during the boom times.
"When the economy is in a downturn, it is a time when people take stock of themselves and ask 'how valuable am I?'," according to Ms Torres. "There are also more demands on everyone so they have to be capable."
The Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School at UCD has the biggest intake of students for its MBA course with typically up to 45 full-time and 60 part-timers every year.
And this represents about a third of the total applications it receives, according to the programme's director, Orla Nugent. Large numbers of applicants don't meet its entry criteria.
In 2008, at the height of the international bank crisis, there was a marked fall-off in the numbers applying to study for this qualification, she says, but since then it has been steady.
"That was about finance but this year we are finding more companies are enquiring about it again. Maybe they are trying to hold on to their talent?"
Typically these business schools don't accept graduates who are just out of college in the belief it is more beneficial for those who have worked for at least three to five years giving them the tools to move on to the next rung of the corporate ladder.
Generally, MBA students are in their 30s, with 12 to 15 years of experience under their belt, she says.
The Irish Management Institute (IMI) also offers an MBA course in conjunction with the Henley Business School at the University of Reading.
Dr Mary Hogan, the IMI's programme director, says the course attracts a wide range of people from Irish and multinational companies based here as well as public servants.
"There are five chief executives and three directors on this course," she says. "Some have started companies, lost them and started new ones, so there is vast experience in the room."
It is interesting that someone with this level of business acumen would shell out as much as €30,000 to do an MBA, instead of using that money to start a business. But it is not about teaching entrepreneurship and focuses mainly on how to manage a business.
Dr Hogan says all of the students on the current programme said they lacked a structural way to think around business issues.
"At a time of economic buoyancy it is easier for them to rely on their intuition in business but when the crunch comes, it can be difficult to operate and they need a more structured approach," she suggests.
The content of all of these courses has been modified to equip the students to cope with the challenging economic environment and all mention an emphasis on teaching ethics, in light of shameful corporate failures that have robbed so many people of their wealth.
A leading Harvard MBA, Jeff Skilling, who is now in jail for his role in the massive Enron fraud, is amongst a coterie of the most highly educated business brains who contributed to the corporate carnage that has tarnished the qualification.
In the good times, companies that were doing well were inclined to support employees in these type of studies, either paying the full course fee or part of it. But in these straitened times, those signing up for MBAs are mainly paying out of their own pockets or via bank loans. They clearly feel this is an investment in their future that will pay off handsomely sooner rather than later.
A recent survey by 'Forbes Magazine' found that MBA graduates from Harvard were the most highly valued, earning an average salary of $230,000 (€161,638) five years after graduation and were still getting big pay packets and perks in the teeth of the recession.
At a time when bonuses and other inducements have been axed, their pay has been rising.
Ms Torres says MBA graduates can expect to see a payback on the cost of this degree within five years while Ms Nugent points to the 'Financial Times' rankings this year that showed graduates from the Smurfit Business School enjoyed a 72pc pay rise after three years.
Dr Hogan says the IMI has found that by the end of the second year of its three-year Henley MBA, the student will have already been promoted or headhunted by another company. "After three years most will have moved to a very senior position," she says.
And while the jobs market is very difficult there are sectors of the economy where MBA graduates are being snapped up. All of the colleges point to the IT sector, pharmaceutical and consulting as the best places to find a well-paid executive position at the moment.
Ms Nugent says 40pc of this year's Smurfit MBA graduates have accepted job offers six weeks after completing their degrees.
All of the graduates immediately become part of an exclusive business club that provides a network that can open doors and offer opportunities in the years ahead.
The MBA Association of Ireland has almost 2,000 members that includes former Kerry Group boss Denis Brosnan, Glen Dimplex founder Martin Naughton, businessman Sir Anthony O'Reilly and telecoms entrepreneur Denis O'Brien.
The association says it has seen a massive increase in new members in the past three years and has an active jobs section and plenty of networking opportunities for members.
Its president, Robert Cooper, says an MBA won't get you a job but it will help you to talk to employers and in the longer term it will help your performance in a senior management role.
It is still a challenging market for graduates and increasingly the association is noticing that multinational companies are seeking employees specifically with an MBA for senior roles.
"It has always been perceived as the most important business qualification in the US and UK and is increasingly seen in that light in Ireland," he says.