MBA: Take your pick, from finance to football

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The proven value of an MBA to a manager's career has spawned a huge variety of courses to meet the specific needs of people in a range of professions.

Philip Schofield looks at the some of the options.

The Masters in Business Administration is no longer a single programme of study, but a highly diverse family of courses.

Most would-be MBAs, employers and business schools share the view that people with several years' prior management experience benefit most from such a programme. However, by this stage of their careers, managers and their employers have a variety of needs, and business schools have proved adept in altering their teaching methods, timetables, methods of delivery and course content in order to meet them.

Some courses are highly analytical, and use case studies and simulations as their main teaching tools. These tend to be favoured by people working in management consultancy and financial institutions. Those in other sectors are drawn more to schools that employ "action learning", in which students tackle real-life problems provided by sponsoring employers.

There are one-year full-time courses, although those at the London and Manchester Business Schools are longer (21 months and 18 months). There is a variety of part-time courses, most lasting two or three years, offering various study patterns including day release, weekend schools and evening classes. And there is distance learning, also with a variety of study options, for those who live in remote locations, travel a lot, or work irregular hours.

An MBA programme typically consists of a core curriculum covering key management functions such as finance and accounting, human resources, information systems, marketing, operations management and quantitative analysis. Some schools maintain a clear separation between each discipline, but a growing number are taking a multi-disciplinary approach. The "core" is usually supplemented by several "electives", chosen from a menu of options. For example, full-time students at Cranfield have a choice of around 13 from more than 70 electives across various functional areas.

Many schools are creating a range of electives from which students can choose specific groups to tailor MBAs for a particular specialism. Sometimes these are run in collaboration with other faculties to provide the necessary specialist expertise. So, for example, Manchester Business School and the Faculty of Law at Manchester University run a part-time MBA for lawyers. Students follow the standard core MBA programme, which is supplemented by workshops showing how these disciplines apply to the legal profession. This is followed by several law electives and consultancy projects based in a legal environment.

Similarly, working with the Department of Computer Science, the school offers a Masters in Business Information Systems (MBIS). This, too, follows the core MBA, but is supplemented by computer science care modules, joint core modules and a number of electives.

Sometimes business schools collaborate with external specialist colleges. Both Manchester and Cranfield run a public sector MBA. These cover the core MBA programme of each school but include electives designed and run by the Civil Service College at Sunningdale Park.

Sometimes two business schools will jointly offer a specialist programme aimed at a particular market sector. For example, Manchester Business School and the School of Accounting, Banking and Economics at the University of Wales in Bangor run a distance-learning MBA for financial specialists that has a world-wide reputation for excellence.

A few MBA courses have a specialist core programme designed to meet a highly specific need. For instance, the Centre for Health Planning and Management at Keele University runs programmes for managers in the health and health-related sectors. The MBA (health executive) programme serves the needs of senior managers in the UK and European health sectors. A parallel MBA in health, population and nutrition in developing countries meets the needs of managers doing similar work in the developing world.

More than 40 of the UK's 104 business schools now offer specialist MBAs. Subjects run from traditional specialisms such as finance and marketing, through to such off-beat subjects as football management.

Ten business schools currently offer specialist MBAs in marketing, 10 in banking and finance, 11 in the public sector and another seven in health. There are MBAs in design at Westminster, facilities management at Sunderland, hospitality at Oxford Brookes, housing at Glasgow, procurement at Birmingham, real estate at Paisley and retailing at Stirling. Perhaps the most unusual course is a newly launched football industries MBA run by Liverpool University's Institute of Public Administration and Management and the University's Football Research Unit.

To meet even more specific needs, small groups of sponsoring employers fund "consortium MBAs" to meet the particular needs of their managers. Other companies have their own exclusive programmes - such as Allied Domecq and the BBC at Bradford, Standard Chartered Bank at Henley, and British Airways at Lancaster.

The MBA now offers an almost infinite variety of management education and develop- ment options at higher degree level. It is perhaps this diversity of choice that makes the MBA so successful.

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