Business may have taken a battering in the West over the past couple of years, but that doesn't mean there's any long-term decline in the appetite for business education. And the case for graduates bolting specific management qualifications onto their CVs, regardless of their first degree discipline, remains as strong as ever.
However, public spending cuts in the UK and elsewhere due to the global economic turbulence have combined to make their mark on recruitment to some categories of postgraduate business education while complicating a landscape that was already in flux due to changing trends that had already been evident for some years.
"I think there's a lot of dynamism in the market," says Jonathan Slack, chief executive of the Association of Business Schools, which provides a collective voice for more than 100 of the UK's schools, including all the major players.
"Some schools are reporting continued healthy recruitment and the attractiveness of British institutions to overseas students remains very strong, but some areas, particularly associated with MBA courses, are not so strong," explains Slack. This view echoes a recent survey by the Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC), which represents business schools worldwide. GMAC found 47 per cent of schools reported a fall in applications for MBA courses starting this autumn.
In the UK, part-time MBAs, historically popular among British mid-career professionals, have recently suffered a sharp decline. But Slack does not put this down exclusively to the unstable economic conditions. "I think, maybe controversially, that this is partially because the market is saturated. There are so many places offering this now. But another factor is certainly that in the public sector, where many people see the MBA as part of their future, funding streams are drying up," he says.
While the MBA retains its cachet as the premier, blue-chip management qualification, it is experiencing serious and growing competition from two broad categories of lower level postgraduate business qualification: the Masters in management, a general management qualification aimed at graduates with little or no business experience, and specialist Masters qualifications targeting a narrow field of business, such as finance or marketing. The robust health of recruitment in these areas seems to be bolstering the stability of most business schools.
"The biggest growth that we have had is a resurgence in the specialist Masters market," explains Professor Nigel Piercy, director of the MBA programme at Warwick Business School. "In particular our Masters in marketing and strategy, and business analytics and consulting, and the MSc in management are all very strong. We were worried about student debt, but at the moment there's no sign of that affecting recruitment."
The picture is much the same at Cass Business School, part of London's City University, and situated only a stone's throw away from the Square Mile that houses London's world-renowned financial institutions.
"It's been truly a record year," says Susan Roth, director of the specialist MSc programmes at Cass. "Applications for these courses went up this year from 6,000 to 8,000, and nearly a quarter of applicants have first-class degrees." Current students on these courses at Cass reflect the changing global business picture. Around 25 per cent are British, another 25 per cent come from the rest of the EU, and the remaining 50 per cent is split between China, India, Russia and other countries outside Europe.
But within the overall category of specialist courses, it is the Masters in management that, across the business school landscape, is really making strides. Courses fitting this template feature on almost every school's programme mix now, and are collectively achieving a huge throughput of students, which underlines the growing demand among recent graduates for a generalist postgraduate business qualification providing an immediate leg-up in the job market, while retaining the flexibility to move into a wide range of sectors.
This flowering profile was highlighted earlier this year by the launch of a new website with the sole aim of providing information about Masters in management courses worldwide, and a platform for debate and discussion about the places of such courses within the wider business education scene. Master in Management Compass ( mim-compass.com) was the brainchild of Thomas Graf, a business development manager based in Germany, who has worked with business schools for the past 10 years.
He concedes that the Masters in management is still outranked in calibre by the MBA, but not by much. "There is still a reason to do an MBA, and the reputation is still stronger than the Masters in management," he says, "but the gap is narrowing. The Masters in management is increasing in importance and I wanted to provide a database that hasn't existed so far."
"The typical target group for the Masters in management is young, recent graduates with little or no professional experience, and the key thing is that you do not have to have a first degree in a business subject degree to get on the courses."
If you're thinking about embarking on a postgraduate business course, Master in Management Compass is a good place for an initial browse. It features articles and discussion areas airing views on the balance between costs and benefits of doing various courses and, in particular, teases out the differences between MBA and Masters in management courses.
For those who already have some work experience, and are perhaps currently in a job, the advice from Roth, at Cass, is not to jump into a course without thinking how the time away from work might affect career trajectory.
"Let your career guide you," she says. "A job is the most important thing and my advice is that if you have job momentum, stay with the job. Education is always here and you can decide to do an MSc or MBA further down the line."
An option growing in popularity for those in work is to study for an MBA by distance learning, an arrangement offered by most schools. This has the advantage of enabling current business experience to be exploited as the basis for assignments and projects, which can then be discussed by fellow students and tutors in online groups.
However, most distance learning courses will entail some face-to-face teaching and seminar sessions, in weekend gatherings scattered throughout the course.
Business-related qualifications you can gain while working are not confined to MBAs and business Masters courses. There are several professional organisations these days offering their own tailored routes to acquiring enhanced theoretical knowledge, applied to real business experience.
One advantage of going down this route is that employers will often be persuaded to share the costs of studying, and will be inclined to make promotion chances available after the qualification has been acquired.
‘I KNOW THE MBA WILL BRING ME A LOT OF CONFIDENCE’
Matthew Dalton, 30, graduated in economics from the University of the West of England in 2001. He is two months into a full-time MBA course at Nottingham Business School.
“After graduating, I worked for a couple of years in the car industry and then as an MP’s researcher. I had thought I would go into politics and try to become an MP, but last year I changed that aim – largely because I was put off by the long hours and lifestyle of an MP. So I decided to join the family agricultural merchant business. But the senior management, including my father, thought it would be right for the company in the long term if I acquired the all-round business skills that an MBA brings.
I chose Nottingham because I was looking for a top 10 UK business school with a broad syllabus, and in a place relatively easy to get to from Peterborough, where I live.
There are 86 students on the full-time course here and I am one of only two Brits. The course fees are £14,400, and I quickly realised they don’t hand out MBAs for free. For example, two weeks in, I was in a small group who had to make a presentation on the impact of technology on an organisation. The word ‘scary’ was appropriate.
The difficulty is not in the complexity of individual topic areas, but that you are doing such a wide variety of them at the same time. But it’s enjoyable and I know the MBA will give me a lot of confidence when I’m talking to people from, for example, HR, accounting or marketing teams.
It’s not yet settled what role I’ll go into when I finish, but my father works operationally in the logistics area and one possibility is that I act as a direct replacement for him.”
‘IT’S AN INVESTMENT IN MY FUTURE’
Neil Batson, 25, is doing an MSc in management at Cass Business School. After graduating in chemistry and management from Bath University in 2007, he joined the consulting arm of Deloitte as a graduate trainee in the IT consulting division.
“Although my degree had a management element to it, it didn’t have the depth of theoretical knowledge that a management Masters gives you. I wanted to do a one-year course because I felt I couldn’t afford, financially or in career terms, to take more than one year out.
The fees are £18,000, which is a lot of money, but it’s an investment in my future, and so far I really feel like I’m getting value for money. I’m paying for it myself, but Deloitte have given me what I’d call a small sweetener, so that I go back to work for them in September.
The course has been really interesting and it’s also good fun. There are 160 of us, but we’re split into two groups of 80, which is a manageable number in lectures. And after Christmas we’ll be split up even further, with people going into one of four streams: strategy, entrepreneurship, marketing or internal audit. I think I’ll probably |do strategy.
There’s very little time to do anything else apart from study, and it’s very focused on group work, which adds an additional element of difficulty. But I think that will be really helpful for me when I get back into business, because I’ll have an additional understanding of group dynamics.
As for the future, I’ll definitely stay in the technology world for the next two or three years, but eventually what I want to do is start a company of |my own.”
‘MANAGEMENT ACCOUNTANCY IS ABOUT ADDING VALUE ’
Economics graduate Luke Butcher, 25, has recently been awarded chartered |management accountant status by the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA). He’s currently a central trading finance analyst at the Sainsbury’s head office.
“In my third year at university, I got a place on the Sainsbury’s finance graduate training scheme, which I joined in September 2007. As part of the scheme, Sainsbury’s pays for you to do one of the recognised accountancy qualifications, and I chose the CIMA route.
Management accountancy is about adding value. You take the numbers and apply an analysis to them and end up with something that will be valuable to senior management and help your company run better.
Sainsbury’s have a contract with a tuition provider who lay on day release sessions as well as evenings and weekends, and you mix and match the sessions you go to according to work pressures, and personal life. It’s a juggle fitting all the study in, and it gets quite tough, plus at the same time the roles you are doing at work are getting progressively harder.
Sainsbury’s pay the fees, give you study leave, and after you pass each level you get a pay rise.
Taking CIMA is really going to set my career up for life. It gives you a quality standard, without which you can only reach a certain level in lots of companies. I’ve also finished the Sainsbury’s scheme now, so I’m applying for senior analyst roles within the company, although in a few years’ time, I might do an MBA to take me up to an even higher level.”