In economically uncertain times, it's far from easy for graduates, armed only with a degree, to get that vital first foothold on the employment ladder. So it's no surprise that postgraduate Masters courses in the business and management field are enjoying rude health, with university business schools already putting up the "full" sign on a large proportion of programmes starting this autumn.
"There's massive demand from all over the world," says Andrew Clare, associate dean for the MSc programme at Cass Business School, part of City University London, where around 1,300 students are coming to the end of 16 different Masters programmes.
Such courses are attractive to recent graduates for two reasons: first, because they offer the chance to enhance a CV in a way that might make that crucial difference in a job search. And second, because they offer a fruitful and purposeful way of riding out another 12 months when the employment market looks likely to remain shaky.
Before the turn of the millennium, the postgraduate business education scene was dominated by the MBA (Master of Business Administration), viewed by many as the Rolls-Royce qualification for aspirant business leaders. But since then, another type of Masters qualification has established a strong presence in the market, often referred to colloquially as a Masters in Business and Management (MBM).
Both types of course are now recognised by the leading UK-based business education accrediting body, the Association of MBAs (Amba), and listed in full on its website (www.mbaworld.com). However, Amba draws a clear dividing line between the two qualifications. "The key difference is that the MBA is a post-experience programme," says Mark Stoddard, accreditation projects manager at Amba. "We demand that MBA programmes receiving our accreditation take only students with a minimum of three years' management experience.
"The MBM, which we started accrediting only in 2005, is very much a starter qualification aimed at people coming straight out of their Bachelor degree and looking to get a qualification so that they can go into the market as an employable person."
Both types of qualification cover the core elements of general management, including finance, marketing, strategy, leadership and human resource management. But while the MBM approach is aimed at beginners, MBA programmes assume knowledge already acquired at the workplace. In fact, many MBA students have considerable seniority in one aspect of business, or in one industrial sector, and want to augment that with knowledge and skills across the entire area of general business management.
One slightly confusing aspect is that, although the MBM designation is a recognised generic term to describe management Masters qualifications for those coming directly from first degrees, exact course descriptions vary.
So, among the Amba-accredited programmes are, for example, an MA in business management at Kingston University London, an MSc in business and management at University of Strathclyde's Business School, and Cass Business School's MSc in management. And on most of these courses, participants come from a variety of academic backgrounds.
"Our MSc students come from a wide range of degree courses," says Clare. "Mainly arts, but also technology areas, economics and accounting."
Some business schools are shaping MBM courses specifically to enable graduates with practical skills to move into management positions, perhaps setting up on their own.
"We think employers are desperately longing for graduates with a science and engineering degree who have also done a business course that strongly emphasises innovation and entrepreneurship," explains Gary Davies, academic director of the Manchester Business School at the University of Manchester, where a new management Masters is due to start in autumn next year.
This will augment an already rich mix of Masters courses at Manchester in specialist areas of the wider business landscape. Among more than 20 such programmes are an MSc in finance and economics, an MSc in information systems, specialising in e-government, and an MSc in operations, project and supply chain management.
Fees for business Masters courses can vary greatly. At Manchester, for example, they range from £6,500 for an MSc in HR management and industrial relations to nearly £19,000 for the MSc in quantitative finance: risk management. And, as a general rule, fees for MBAs are higher than those for courses aimed at less experienced students.
Whatever the cost, though, Masters courses clearly represent a substantial investment of time and money, for which most students expect to see a return in terms of employment prospects. Business schools recognise this, and usually provide plenty of background support and guidance to help students to maximise their chances.
"We give them as much help as we can," explains Clare, at Cass. "We have tutor systems, and our careers advice service puts on workshops and one-to-one tutorials to help students apply for jobs. And we encourage them to set up clubs and societies, because we recognise that it can't be all work and no play."
'They teach you so much about your strengths and weaknesses'
Yuksel Chelik, 22, completed an MSc in management at Cass Business School last year. Her first degree, in business management, was at Queen Mary, University of London. She works for Web Liquid, a digital marketing agency in London.
"A few things stood out for me on my Masters course at Cass. First, they teach you so much about your strengths and weaknesses, and about how to prepare yourself to go after jobs and to communicate with potential employers.
Second, Cass prepares you for teamworking, and how to make the best of everyone's strengths. This is very important in a business.
And all the courses at Cass stress the importance of creativity – not just in business areas but in every aspect of life.
They really get it across that the element of creativity will help you stand out from the crowd and get you ahead. I now realise that I use creativity in every area of my life.
After finishing my course, I worked in the communications department at Cass for six months, and then a couple of months ago I started working for Web Liquid, where I'm an associate working on media planning and account management."