MAKING IT TO the top in today's business world requires an astute combination of theoretical knowledge, practical experience and the ability to spot industry-shaping trends in a changing environment. To help leaders and senior executives meet these diverse challenges, the University of Newcastle in Australia developed and launched an online Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) programme in early 2003. The course accepts about 100 students each year and is available in Hong Kong through the Hartford Institute, which acts as an agent for GraduateSchool.com, the university's online provider. 'Online study provides the opportunity to study anywhere, anytime,' said Scott Holmes, who is dean of graduate studies and professor of accounting at the University of Newcastle, as well as chief executive of GraduateSchool.com. 'For those who are unable to attend classes due to location, work or lifestyle, or simply prefer the online mode of study, it provides the equivalent of the corresponding on-campus programme.' The primary goal of the DBA is to develop the competencies of practising managers and business professionals. It also aims to equip them as effective leaders in their own organisations and industries, and in the community at large. 'The ultimate goal is to take graduates' careers and capacity for complex, strategic thinking and research to an even higher level,' Professor Holmes said. Ivan Mak Kwok-sing, who is working as a financial controller, was among the first to join the programme in 2004. He wanted, in particular, to further his professional knowledge and enhance his academic research skills. As someone who already holds six degrees from various universities in Australia and Britain, Dr Mak had little trouble going back to school online and has found it possible to fit the course requirements even into a busy work schedule. 'You can study at your own pace,' he said. 'Coursework mainly consists of learning the concepts, while assessment is done by online essays and assignments.' Dr Mak spent about 10 hours a week on his studies and managed to complete the three stages of the programme in 2? years. He said the key was to have the necessary self-discipline, motivation and dedication. In his case, the support and encouragement of his family also made a big difference. He believes the DBA has given him greater confidence in making business decisions and a more analytical approach. Though the online format provides the flexibility students may prefer, it does not suit everyone. 'One drawback may be that some students can find it difficult to maintain motivation without the need to attend a lecture at a specific time,' Professor Holmes said. Rosiah Ho Wing, who is currently taking the course, confirmed that being dedicated and committed were key to completing the programme. With the help of his doctoral degree, he is planning to change career direction and move from IT into academia. 'There is no personal contact between the students, so electronic platforms for interaction such as online forums, chat boards and e-mail discussions are highly important, particularly when it comes to discussing progress with the dissertation supervisor,' said another student, Daniel Gruszynski, who is a lecturer and managing director from Germany. He signed on for the DBA to 'get new ideas on how to teach better', and hopes the qualification will help him to land assignments teaching PhD level courses. The University of Newcastle is ranked among the top 10 in Australia and has created a syllabus which introduces different types of research methodology. 'It gives something for your job and also for your life,' said Mr Gruszynski. According to Professor Holmes, completing a DBA shows current and prospective employers that the graduate is capable of strategic thinking and resolving complex problems. 'Graduates can look forward to the opportunity of significantly increased recognition and standing within their chosen profession and a competitive advantage over other candidates should they choose to change careers,' he said.