They may be berated, but managers in the NHS are striving for excellence.
Next month, when Ashridge Management College's executive MBAs are presented, many projects will be rewarded. They include preparing part of the National Health Service for a new, customer-focused culture; reviewing the way emergency patients are managed; and looking at the implications for hospital bed space of treating chronically ill patients at home.

Appropriately enough, given that these projects are the work of three of the eight health service managers in the group of 48 people graduating from Ashridge's part- and full-time MBAs this year, the degrees will be awarded on 9 May by Alan Langlands, chief executive of the NHS. Many of the recipients have been supported through their one- or two-year programmes by NHS bursaries worth more than pounds l5,000 each; Ashridge is one of a small band of business schools approved for running career development courses for health service managers.

One of the latest of the 22 health service staff who have studied for the Ashridge Executive MBA since it began nine years ago is Helen Glenister, nursing director of the Medical Devices Agency. Before joining Ashridge - which since 1994 has been charged with ensuring that products as varied as hospital beds and syringes meet safety, quality and performance standards - Dr Glenister worked at the Oxfordshire and Anglia Health Trust and the East Anglia Regional Health Authority. She says the MBA has prepared her for the wider implications of a management role.

Similar aims were behind Ann Ingham's decision to study at the college in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire.

A trained nurse, who moved into management at the time of the Government's health service reforms in 1990, she is executive director of Tameside Acute Services NHS Trust in Lancashire. "The MBA helped me to develop confidence as a manager, and I was able to apply what I was learning direct to the workplace," she says. She also gained greater awareness of finance, marketing and team-working, and insights into "the vocabulary" of management.

This widening of horizons was also cited by Paula Friend, a senior manager with the Worthing and Southlands NHS Trust in West Sussex, who added that the emphasis on strategy had helped her become more proactive in relation to planning.

At the same time the participants - and their organisations - had gained specific benefits by completing projects that were essentially live consultancy programmesn