Now it's the age of the people's MBA

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The Independent Online
IN THE past decade there has been an explosion in the number of MBA courses offered in the United Kingdom. With this growth has come a proliferation of different types of specialist MBAs alongside the traditional general MBA.

Business schools, partly in response to a perceived need and partly in order to carve a niche for themselves in a crowded market place, now offer business administration masters degrees in a host of specialisms including agribusiness, hospitality management, criminal justice and water management.

One indication of this specialisation is the growth of MBA courses in public sector management for local government administrators, teachers, police officers, probation officers, nurses and other health service professionals. Broadly speaking such courses are offered in two different forms.

On the one hand there are the public sector management courses that examine the broad issues facing those, for example, in the health service, and then courses are more precisely tailored for specialist groups such as nurses. On the other there are courses that are general programmes within which are embedded specialist options. A good example of the latter is run by Durham University Business School which has taken a standard MBA programme and developed specialist health service management electives within it.

This MBA was developed after the chief executive of the then Northern Regional Health Authority, Liam Donaldson, decided he wanted to transform the culture of the organisation and make it much more businesslike.

The business school persuaded him that rather than setting up a specialist health management MBA, it would be more productive to run a general MBA with specialist health service options, for example, primary health care, medical ethics and the sociology of health.

The school developed the new electives at the authority's expense and over the past six years some 250 doctors, administrators and nurse managers have been sponsored for MBAs.

What is probably the biggest sponsored MBA programme in the country is designed to enable health service professionals to make more informed business decisions when handling multimillion pound budgets. Health professionals from the authority, now renamed the NHS Executive Northern and Yorkshire, join generalist MBA classes in the first third of the part-time, 27-month long course, but in the second part are required to choose at least four health service electives. The final portion of their MBA involves writing a dissertation on a health management issue.

Dr David Stoker, the school's director of development, said: "Although in one sense putting 250 people through an MBA is hugely costly, the benefits are even more enormous because they are not running a corner shop."

Dr Stoker points out that while it is commonly accepted that the public services have much to learn from business about how to manage, business also has much to learn from the health service. "No sector has undergone so much change as the health service," he said "and managing that change in a very public environment is a wonderful learning experience." In areas such as purchasing, customer care, mergers, succession planning and managing human resources, he adds, the health service is actually at or near the leading edge of modern management practice.

A similar traditional core MBA, entitled the Civil Service MBA, with specialist electives is offered by Cranfield School of Management, Manchester Business School, Imperial College and the Civil Service College.

Full and part time students study the traditional core subjects, but also take electives delivered by the Civil Service College in, for example, performance indicators in public service, the public expenditure round and the influence of politics and government on the way organisations are managed.

Students are sponsored by the civil service, the fees being pounds 15,000 full- time and pounds 9,500 part-time. Professor Leo Murray, director of the Cranfield School of Management, says student response to the course has been enthusiastic.

By contrast the University of Nottingham Business School runs several less general public service MBAs. Health Service management and education management have been offered as part-time courses for some years. These consist of sections tackling issues relating to the entire public sector and then focus on issues relating to education or health. The school has also started a part- and full-time MBA in local government and next year will start an MBA in Criminal Justice, aimed at the police, prisons and the probation service, and a fifth public sector MBA for the voluntary sector.

Scott Goddard, director of MBA programmes, said the school had tried to keep the costs of the education MBA down so that schools could afford to send heads and deputies on the course. "Although some may think that pounds 6,360 is expensive," he added "it's actually relatively cheap for a reasonable quality MBA."

Significantly, perhaps, four years ago Henley Management College phased out its Public Sector MBA. Professor Ray Wild, its principal, said it was abolished partly because there was less of a public sector than there used to be and partly because the public sector is now more like the private sector. When it was running the public sector MBA the college found that quite often public sector professionals were clamouring to be admitted on to the college's general MBA rather than the public sector MBA because they wanted to be with people from industry and business.

"Our philosophy of management development here is that it is very much to do with the experience people go through and not just to do with the curriculum," Professor Wild added. "The experience is more stimulating and more demanding if they are doing it among a group of heterogeneous people of similar standing, nature and experience to themselves, but who have had different experiences from themselves."

If you want to find out more about MBAs, visit the Accredited MBA Fair in London on 26 October. For information about how to attend telephone the Association of MBAs, 0171-837 3375.