MBAs: Mastering the art of business in public: More NHS professionals, civil servants and council officers are joining MBA courses, says Elizabeth Heron

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GROWING numbers of public sector managers and professionals are taking the Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree to improve their management skills and their prospects of promotion.

The Open University's distance- learning MBA is the most popular course with public sector employees, who now make up about one-third of students on the course. But business schools across Britain are reporting an upturn in applications and enrolments from the public sector.

Warwick Business School has seen a doubling of its intake of public service personnel over the past three years, to about 10 per cent of total enrolments. In particular intake of health service professionals has risen, with enrolments in all programme types. Large increases in applications from public sector employees have occurred recently at Cranfield Business School and at Henley Management College, where 28 per cent of parttimers and at least 11 per cent of distance-taught students are from the public sector.

Sheila Cameron, director of the OU's MBA programme, says health service professionals, local government officials, civil servants and university administrators are the predominant groups represented. She says: 'Public sector managers now need general management skills as well as professional ones and both strategic vision and flexibility of response to inevitable future change are critical to them. That is why MBAs are now seen as being so relevant.'

Public sector MBA students at the OU enjoy a higher rate of sponsorship than their private sector counterparts: about 90 per cent of them are directly sponsored by their employers as opposed to some 30 per cent for the MBA student body as a whole.

Regional health authorities have been particularly active sponsors and this year a pounds 1.25m NHS bursary scheme to enable nurses, midwives, health visitors and professionals allied to medicine (physiotherapists, radiographers) to take masters level management training has added 122 full bursaries. Two-thirds of these are being used on MBA programmes.

The NHS scheme, which is intended to improve female professionals' access to senior posts but is also open to men, covers all the fees and residential costs of an MBA, whether full or part-time, modular or distance-taught.

To be eligible, employees must have obtained a place on a course at one of the following participating colleges: Henley Management College, Warwick Business School, Manchester Business School, Oxford Brooks University Business School, Keele University Business School, Cambridge University's Judge Institute of Management Studies and Ashridge Management College.

Schools are adapting their provision to meet the needs of a public sector clientele. Jill Ford, business development manager at the Henley Management College, which has traditionally had a significant minority of public sector students, says the interest is very often in the general MBA rather than one confined to the public sector. 'We have therefore developed a programme that will cater for the needs of both sectors and gives the student maximum choice.

'We have rewritten some of our study material to cater for the needs of public sector students, particularly in the areas of accounting, finance and economics and in strategy.' The courses were adapted in collaboration with the Cipfa Education and Training College, which is also an equal partner in a public sector stream within the Henley distance-learning MBA.

Warwick's integrated (consortium) MBA, designed specifically for organisations undergoing rapid and radical change, has aroused great interest among regional health authorities. The programme is tailored to the needs of several participating organisations which all contribute students and exchange expertise.

North West Thames Regional Health Authority has been involved from the start in a consortium in which all other participants are private companies. Professor Robin Wensley, chairman of Warwick Business School, says: 'These health professionals enrich the mix of MBA students and the whole groups benefits from the breadth of experience.'

The OU MBA includes an option on managing public services and special versions of all the OU's certificate and diploma-level management courses have been produced for the health service, which helps to siphon students into the MBA.

Mary Coles, a project manager in the London Borough of Ealing's social services department, took a Management MBA at the City University Business School as part of a training initiative sponsored by Ealing for ethnic minorities and women. She graduated last year with a distinction.

Ms Coles was pleasantly surprised by the emphasis placed at City on self- development. She was encouraged to look at her own needs and those of her colleagues as a basis for three workplace projects included in the MBA.

She used the projects to introduce into her department a philosophy of 'bottom-up learning', whereby social workers are encouraged to determine their own work priorities, which formed the basis for restructuring the department and an appraisal system.

Tom Axon, head teacher at the Ridgeway School, a comprehensive in Wiltshire, graduated this year in the Henley distance-learning MBA. He decided to take a general MBA because of the increase in responsibility for financial management that has occurred in schools. He has, however, found the strategic management and marketing parts of the course most useful in practice.

'We're far more rigorous now at the Ridgeway School in terms of our goals,' he says. 'In our budgeting we try to focus on need rather than simply doing what has been done in the past and we also think much more in terms of cost-effectiveness.' Mr Axon has also conducted a market survey of parents and persuaded his education authority to introduce a 'proper management accountancy system'.

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