The "classic" two-year MBA, developed at Harvard 90 years ago, prepares people for general management. However since the 1960s, when MBAs were first taught in Europe, it has evolved in several ways. First it is now seen as a post-experience as well as a postgraduate programme requiring students to have several years' prior management experience. It can be taken full-time or through a variety of part-time or distance learning programmes. And most UK schools have reduced the two- year full-time programme to one intensive year.
An MBA programme typically consists of a core curriculum covering the key management functions - marketing, finance, human resources, information systems, operations management and quantitative analysis. Once taught separately, an inter-disciplinary approach is increasingly taken to these subjects. The "core" is usually supplemented by several "electives" chosen from a menu of options. These enable MBA students to pursue particular interests.
About 45 of Britain's 118 business schools now group electives on a common theme to offer specialist MBAs in that subject. But now the core programme on some specialist MBA programmes is being tailored to the needs of that specialism.
Several business schools offer MBAs in banking and finance, marketing, and the public sector. There are MBAs in housing at Glasgow, hospitality at Oxford Brookes and human resources at City, Sunderland and Cardiff. There is retailing at Stirling, real estate at Paisley and Plymouth, and project management at Henley. And Liverpool offers a football industries MBA.
Defining the difference between MBAs and MScs, Mike Jones, the Director- General of the Association of MBAs, says both are academic programmes, but the MBA has a vocational bias. "The MBA is equipping a manager with a set of tools and techniques, understanding why they are necessary, where they are applied and how to apply them. The MSc is a research- based degree in which you are looking at why rather than how."
Cranfield School of Management has no specialist MBAs other than one run for the Civil Service. It argues that an MBA is strictly a general management degree. Professor Colin New, director of graduate programmes, says that "any other degree we have here is an MSc". He disagrees with the argument that MScs are purely academic. He says the essential difference is one of choice between a general management course and a tightly focused specialist programme.
This view is shared by the London Business School. LBS is unique in Britain in retaining the two-year full-time MBA. Janet Dobson, administrative director of the finance programmes office, said: "We have a fairly purist view of what an MBA is. It is a general management programme which takes two years full-time, with the first year covering core general management subjects, and the second giving the opportunity to go on to areas in greater depth via a choice of electives... in which you are likely to specialise in several areas.
"A lot of schools offer various forms of what they have chosen to call an MBA, but which we would not regard as falling into that classical mould. There are institutions offering MBAs in engineering, or marketing, or finance or whatever. In our term- inology that's incorrect."
LBS offers one-year MSc programmes. Citing its finance MSc as an example, Ms Dobson said: "We would never dream of calling it an MBA in finance because it doesn't have the core general management element which we regard as essential."
On teaching style she said business school MScs are different from other taught masters degrees. "The teaching style is very practical and vocational, with a lot of emphasis on case studies and practical applications. The whole atmosphere is business-oriented."
What factors should a manager take into consideration when choosing a programme to develop his or her career?
For someone with several years' management experience, and who aspires to a more strategic general management role, there is no substitute for a classic MBA from a business school accredited by the Association of MBAs. It will cover all management disciplines, draw on the experience both of the faculty and also the student body, provide an internationally recognised qualification and significantly enhance one's employability.
For those with similar experience, but who want to develop their career further in a specialist role or industry, there is greater choice. It is possible that the choice of electives in a general MBA programme will adequately satisfy the need for any further specialist knowledge. Otherwise, they can choose a specialist MBA or an MSc in that specialism.
If the role is likely to have a significant strategic element, the specialist MBA should normally be chosen because its core programme will cover the whole field of management. Again, one gets a highly marketable qualification. On the other hand, if a thorough knowledge of one's specialisation is more critical, or if one has limited management experience or plans to change specialisms, then a specialist MSc might be better.
However, courses vary enormously and there are no clear distinctions. As one business academic said: "What one business school calls a specialist MBA, another calls an MSc." Always check the prospectuses.