With graduate unemployment in the UK at a 15-year high, it shouldn't come as a surprise that one of the fastest-growing degrees is the pre-experience business Masters. In fact, such is the growth in these specialised Masters programmes among graduates who want to stand out in today's tough job market that the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) claims it's becoming the new Bachelors degree.
GMAC, whose recent Corporate Recruiters Survey highlights the trend, found that 83 per cent of Masters of finance programmes reported applications were up, along with increases in 69 per cent of Masters in management and 51 per cent of Masters in accounting programmes. The research said that students hoped that these courses would help in accelerating their career paths, developing their leadership and managerial skills, increase their salary potential, allow them to develop general business knowledge and, most importantly, improve their job prospects after graduating.
Their decision seems to be paying off, according to GMAC, with 41 per cent of companies planning to hire recent Masters in management graduates in 2012, an increase from 35 per cent in 2011, while 35 per cent of companies plan to hire recent Masters in accounting graduates, up from 29 per cent in 2011. The most noticeable increase is in the number of small companies who plan to hire graduates with business Masters degrees.
"The economic challenges of recent years have put pressure on European companies in particular to reduce costs and become more efficient – corporate goals that typically translate into a more stagnant hiring report. Consequently, job seekers in Europe at all levels face increased competition for available positions," explains Julia Tyler, executive vice-president at GMAC. "Specialised business Masters degrees help candidates develop a specialised skill-set that continues to add value in the workplace."
Many businesses don't have a formal graduate training scheme, points out Roger Delves, director of Ashridge Business School's Masters in management. "For these businesses in particular, an applicant who has studied to Masters level in management is likely to get more of a running start than an applicant with a Bachelors degree in management, taking the burden of early development from the employing organisation."
Graduates of these Masters, he says, require less development, start to contribute faster, arrive with a better grasp of broad basics around finance, strategy, leadership, teamwork and other core competencies. "This makes the individual a quicker learner and means that the employing organisation need invest less time and money in an early‑years development programme."
Omid Aschari, managing director of the Masters in strategy and international management at the University of St Gallen, also says he's witnessed a trend towards more employers seeking self-starters who can prove their commitment to raising their own game right from the start. "There are many challenges for today's companies in weighing up the risks and opportunities of doing business such as political instability, trade barriers, shorter production life cycles and technological innovations. Companies now have to map out their strategies accordingly and therefore become more flexible and adaptable by employing people who have the relevant knowledge, skills and competencies," he adds.
Business Masters with an international focus are particularly valuable, he claims. "Candidates must be global-minded or risk a massive competitive disadvantage. Companies are in dire need of talents that can perform in different cultural settings based on personally reflected experiences. Our programme, for example, creates unique opportunities for student teams to immerse themselves into new environments and thereby reinforce personal development."
Some people, however, believe it's important not to get carried away with the worth of these degrees. "Yes, we are certainly seeing an upward trend, but it's still not taken as seriously as a chartered accounting qualification or a top-class degree, such as maths or history, from a blue-chip university," says Simon Brocklebank-Fowler, chairman of Cubitt Consulting and honorary visiting fellow of Cass Business School. He says the MBA is still the gold standard international business qualification that will "give you a network for life, and let you explore your entrepreneurialism as well as your institutional skill-set in a protected and challenging environment. This is still much more valuable than pre-experience qualification or vocational Masters."
Phil Dunne, partner at AT Kearney, agrees. "MBA graduates with six to eight years of prior work experience are still our core recruits. In my mind, they are worth the price premium over Masters of management graduates, who we deploy in very different roles."
But Lucy Newton, senior lecturer in business history at Henley Business School, believes the Masters versus MBA debate is not comparing like with like. "An MBA is a way to get your foot up the ladder once you've got some business experience behind you. The pre-experience Masters degree is just that – a way of furthering your business education before you get that all-important work experience."
Indeed, GMAC points out that the majority of applicants to Masters in management, accounting and finance are 25-years-old or younger and have far fewer years of work experience than applicants to MBA programmes.
Newton also insists those with good first degrees can still benefit from a pre-experience Masters. "Just this month, we were at a London careers fair for undergraduates. Many of the students were in their second or third year of degrees in the likes of law, history and English and they were looking for a good conversion course to get into business. I think a Masters in business management is a good solution for differentiating themselves in today's marketplace.
"It also gives people a chance to really specialise – there's even a pre-experience Masters in Islamic finance – while other people may choose to do a more generalist Masters."
Even Newton, however, is not prepared to go as far as saying these Masters are the new Bachelors degrees. "I say this because there are excellent business and management Bachelors degrees, with one-year placements, in which students don't need any kind of business conversion course. Indeed, many of these students are getting jobs with the employers they are doing their placements with. After all, if you're good, employers would rather keep you than taking the risk through the selection procedure. When I visited Disney, I was told that their graduate intake was almost entirely filled through students who have done a placement year with them."
If you are considering a pre-experience business Masters, Newton's advice is to consider not only your employability, but areas of business you feel passionately about. "I see so many students who think purely about employability, but the topics covered have got to light your candle both in the short and long term. These courses not only last a whole year, but are intensive and in any case, it's no good studying something that might help further your career, but which you come to eventually realise you don't really want a career in anyway."