SOME WOMEN LEAVE their husbands for it. Other people give up 18 months of weekends. All of them pay a lot of money to get it - but few have any regrets. In a world beset with increasingly confusing three letter acronyms, the MBA - Master of Business Administration - has become commonplace to those who aspire to climb the competitive corporate ladder. Or to put it bluntly, climb the salary ladder. According to the most recent figures from Curtin University in Australia, MBA graduates globally saw an average of 45 per cent increase in salary. In North America it was 62 per cent, Europe 39 per cent and Asia Pacific, 25 per cent. An MBA used to be to traditional academia what the Nasdaq market was originally to Wall Street - a start-up alternative for the new world. From its inception in the United States about 20 years ago, the MBA course has spread across the globe and can mean the difference between getting the job and not. Companies in Hong Kong pay around US$60,000 (HK$467,460) for a key employee to undertake a course. An MBA from a high-brow university in the US such as Harvard can be considerably more - that is not including living costs associated with two years as a student. According to those in the business arena, the three top universities for MBAs are Stanford, Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It can break the bank, but the gains far outweigh the high cost, according to graduates now doing business in Hong Kong. 'Back then it was cheap,' Frank Gibson says of his MBA experience in 1990 from the Graduate School of Management at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. It took Gibson - now poised to become the chief executive officer of a dotcom company in Hong Kong after several years as strategic director for Australian brewery Lion Nathan - two years to get his MBA and cost him about A$8,000 (HK$36,360) a year. In US dollars, that is roughly just US$4,630 in today's terms. 'But it has gone up dramatically since then,' he says. The attraction for Gibson - as it is for most candidates - was purely to enhance his career opportunities. 'I'd worked in the public sector back then and I wanted to use the MBA to switch into the private sector,' he says. Immediately after the MBA, Gibson moved into strategic consulting. 'I wouldn't have even got into consulting without it,' he admits. Compared to thousands of aspiring corporate types, Gibson's MBA experience was financially painless. A co-worker in Shanghai on a modest income of 15,000 yuan (HK$13,718) a month has done it the hard way. 'She saved for a long time . . . she left her husband in China and she's gone into debt to take on an enormous commitment to go to London Business School,' he says. 'In her case, there is no doubt in her mind that this is a legitimate investment.' In Britain, the fees alone could cost US$40,000 a year and, with associated costs, that figure could multiply several times over two years. Merrill Lynch head of Asia Pacific research marketing Brent Robinson is fresh from receiving an executive MBA in Hong Kong through the Kellogg programme. Kellogg, the business school of North Western University in the US, operates an 18-month programme at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology in Sai Kung. It cost Merrill Lynch about US$60,000 for him to complete his MBA, a relative drop in the ocean for such a large investment bank, but a huge tax on Robinson's time. For 18 months he went to the University every Friday afternoon and all day Saturday and Sunday. 'I feel so much more confident about what I do and how I do it,' says Robinson. 'I don't think there's any question that education is never an absolute certainty that you will get a better job, but it never hurts.' For one thing, he found the networking from within the programme incredibly valuable for business professionals. The top programmes have an internal job market. 'That's another key aspect,' says Robinson of a reason for some to undertake an MBA. 'With the Kellogg course, it increased my skills when it came to team issues.' He says he would have been prepared to pay for the MBA himself if the company had not covered the cost. Robinson's previous attempts at jumping into an MBA were thwarted by the fact that many in other parts of the world are full-time courses so he would have had to give up his job. In Hong Kong, the part-time scenario seems to be working for many people, possibly because the MBA courses are designed for those who have had a job for several years and are looking to further their positions. University of Hong Kong school of business associate professor Chris Chan teaches an MBA course that takes two years part-time. Chan is unsure of the exact cost, but estimates it at HK$10,000 per subject with 14-15 subjects required. That is as high as HK$150,000 - not bad in comparison to a top US school. Chan says studying at one of the leading US universities could cost at least twice or three times as much just for the tuition. 'One of the major reasons why it is part-time is we want to have people who are working and who have at least four to six years of experience,' says Chan. 'They can contribute to discussion better than people not working.' The average age range based on this year's enrolment data is late 20s to early 30s, with about 25 per cent of them older than the mid-30s. 'One of the reasons they do the MBA is that they're looking for that additional edge,' Chan says. 'They feel like it's time for advancement and they need more formal training. I think quite a few of them have been asked by their bosses to get that additional qualification, but then there are those who have graduated and looked for a better job because these qualifications give them that opportunity.' Merrill's Robinson says originally, MBA courses were shunned by traditional academic institutions. 'It was really not given much credit in very traditional academic circles but over the years, it has gone a lot further.' In Hong Kong, Chan has seen the concept increasingly embraced in recent years. 'I think it's catching on very heavily in Hong Kong,' he says. Popularity aside, what happens if a potential student cannot afford to pay exorbitant fees for a top university? If the best universities are the most sought after and likely to result in job offers, paying to go to an average institution may not be worth even the lesser cost of tuition. Gibson believes the quality of education at the less highbrow schools is just as good. 'But they don't carry the status,' he says. 'What you're really paying for is the brand.' According to Gibson, choosing a school depends on several factors: the stage of career that the potential student is at, and what they want to do with their MBA. 'Someone early in their career who is looking for a step up - in that instance, they probably are better off going in to debt,' he says. 'Someone who already has a good record of performance and is really doing it to improve their capabilities, they're better off going to one of the schools that is not in the top 20.' After all that good news on what happens on completion of an MBA, you may be wondering whether it is time to give up your lazy Sunday mornings for some serious book thrashing. It might be worth checking beforehand what actually goes on during the course. For those who have not set foot in a classroom for more than 10 years, what actually is taught may be the big question. From Robinson's experience, there is an emphasis on case studies as the course evolves: 'They take a real-life situation like a bankruptcy and the issues involved ... and you've got to build a response to the whole crisis in the company. You have your lectures, economics and accounting for example, that are regular class lectures, but then you go away and do these projects.' There are also courses on the Internet, the stockmarket, organisational behaviour and, in Hong Kong, a course on doing business in Asia. Hong Kong University's Chan has found that 70 to 80 per cent of all his students did not major in business for their undergraduate degrees. 'They may have engineering or law degrees and they've moved into the business ranks, and they need to go back and get some formal tools.'