Courses that take MBAs to the outer limits

Helena Pozniak asks if a specialist MBA sacrifices wider business credibility

With a PhD in physics and years of management experience, Dr Helmut Kessler might have considered himself too smart for school. Yet the manager of Isle of Man-based laser optics firm CVI Technical Optics has returned to the classroom, and completed a highly specialist MBA – offered by the International Space University (ISU). A traditional MBA would have focused too heavily on material he judges as irrelevant to his work. "There was a vast amount I learnt that was very specific to space commerce – and I apply it on a daily basis. I doubt this would be covered in such depth in a generalist MBA. Nobody wants to learn things you don't need – time is too precious."

Focusing on all aspects of the space industry, from engineering to science and space law, the ISU's executive MBA, which produced its first graduates last year, is a typical example of a sector-led MBA. But it is specialist courses like these that make traditionalists grow hot under the collar. After all, isn't the strength of the MBA – which emerged decades ago to develop potential business leaders – in its generalist appeal?

"Frankly, the space sector is particular," says Professor Walter Peeters, dean of the ISU, in defence of the course, which came about in response to demand from the industry and ISU alumni. Numbers have doubled on the second intake, and he hopes to offer this MBA more frequently in the face of growing demand. "There was a feeling that parts of a traditional MBA just wouldn't fit – the space industry is not a typical consumer market. So we've merged some of the classic elements."

But a proliferation of specialist MBAs – focusing on niches as varied as Islamic banking and finance, to luxury brands or energy – risks diluting the MBA's international status, argue supporters of the traditional degree. "It's confusing if the MBA brand is watered down; it's such an internationally respected course," says Jonathan Slack, chief executive of the Association of Business Schools. Schools point out that the MBA was intended to enable skilled professionals to lift their heads above the parapet and get a broader perspective.

So why choose a specialist course? "Some candidates ultimately want the flexibility of knowledge, but also the prestige of a premier management qualification," says Amir Sharif, MBA director at Brunel Business School, which offers students a chance to study electives in healthcare or aviation management. Inevitably, almost all students have prior experience in their chosen area. "We feel, and so do students, that a specialist at MBA level can help boost employability prospects while maintaining the generalism expected of MBA study," he says. Some 60 per cent of the programme is devoted to general management subjects. Specialisms seem to suit those who are several years down the line in a particular industry, or seeking to enter a growth industry – Aberdeen University has responded to the spike in Europe's energy sector, for example, with an MBA in oil and gas management. "We're certainly seeing new courses," says Dave Wilson, CEO of the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC). Business schools are being creative and finding ways to leverage a university's reputation. People are asking for something tightly focused,"

But isn't the whole point of MBAs to open rather than close doors, argues Professor Frank Horwitz, director of Cranfield School of Management? Isn't an MBA supposed to give what professional and vocational training can't? "Specialist programmes tend to limit choice," he says. "In the short term, the specialist argument might be plausible, but can you really say you're going to stay in a particular sector for the rest of your career?" Students on specialist programmes are less likely to reap the rewards of a diverse cohort, he adds. Traditional and accredited programmes draw from a far wider pool of sectors and nationalities – some 35 different countries are represented this year at Cranfield for example. "This kind of collective learning can't be replicated easily on a sector-based programme."

Michelle Boland considered a specialist MBA "for about five seconds" before applying to Cranfield, and hasn't looked back, joining Cambridge University Press as web director since graduating."I wanted to be a good leader, a master of business, not just of marketing," she says. "It was a prerequisite for the job I do now. The majority of people doing the MBA had got to where they were by being extremely focused, and the course changed everyone – it rounded off the edges, made you into a good leader rather than someone who can work a calculator."

While the majority of MBAs – especially accredited programmes – remain generic rather than specialist, many already offer a degree of flexibility through electives and dissertations. "A specialism should only be a limited part of the programme," says Ceridwyn Bessant, associate dean of postgraduate programmes at Newcastle Business School. Courses that focus on sector rather than subject – public sector, say, rather than strategic finance – are preferable, he believes. "You are contextualising your general business education within that sector, which is fine, if you know that's where you want to be. But the focus should still be on development of the individual as a leader. It's about breadth."

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