Crossover appeal

Because of its reputation as a fast-track to the top, an MBA is now sought after by those working in the public sector. Helen Jones reports
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The Independent Online

"I wanted to consolidate all the experience I had gained over the years working in the public sector and get some formal recognition for it," says Mark Beard, who last year completed an MBA at Bristol Business School and now works for Somerset County Council.

Mr Beard is just one of a growing army of public sector workers seeking an MBA.

"As the public sector becomes increasingly complex and competitive, there is a growing need for sophisticated management skills and we are seeing more people from the public sector who are choosing to do an MBA," says Professor Ken Russell, director of Bristol Business School's MBA programme.

It's a view endorsed by Alison Edmonds, director of Career Management Services at Manchester Business School. "The public sector is increasingly beginning to move into the MBA hiring market and the consulting sector is also showing an interest in MBAs with public sector backgrounds," she says.

Between 20 and 25 per cent of Bristol Business School's students are from local government, the health service and government agencies such as the Defence Procurement Agency, which sends a number of people on the course each year.

However, Bristol Business School does not offer a specialised public sector MBA. "We did think about it and considered running an MBA programme for the health sector but decided against it," says Professor Russell. "We carried out extensive research and found that students thought there was much more value in being part of a mixed group from a wide variety of employment backgrounds so that they could learn from each other."

For Mr Beard, the best thing about his MBA experience was meeting people from all sorts of industries. "It was really useful and we soon realised how many similarities there are between the private and public sectors - everyone has to manage people, resources and politics," he says.

Nottingham Business School recently decided to merge its public services MBA programme with its existing executive MBA programme. It did so because there is more value in all students following the same course rather than making a distinction between one type of management background and another, according to Dr Sonia Taylor. Nottingham is very keen to attract students from the public sector and does offer some financial help, she says. "We do offer substantial discounts to public sector people - sometimes as much as 50 per cent. It depends on the organisation and it's done on an individual basis."

While Nottingham has ended its specialist public services MBA, other institutions provide a halfway house, where students can follow a classic MBA but with public sector elements in the form of electives and project work.

Cranfield School of Management, for example, runs an MBA for the public sector targeted at high-flying civil servants. The first half of the programme is carried out alongside Cranfield's full-time MBA students and students then tailor their learning with projects of particular relevance to the public sector.

According to Pauline Weight, director of the programme, "Participants from the public sector and their fellow students from the private sector value learning together in a challenging and supportive environment. The intellectual, personal and experiential contribution of the public sector students adds to the quality and diversity of the student body."

Leeds Business School also offers a traditional MBA with "special interest pathways" such as construction management or public sector management. The public sector course includes a specialist public sector management module and two specialist electives - public sector finance and public sector quality.

But for those people who want a course directly tailored to the needs of a career in the public sector, there are specialist MBA programmes. One of the biggest - and longest-established - providers is the school of public policy at the University of Birmingham. Working with the university business school, it runs full- and part-time MBAs and is currently going through the process of accreditation by the Association of MBAs.

Professor John Raine, from the university, says, "We use the classic MBA and graft on modules suited to the needs of the public sector. So, for example, we have a lot of students who come from housing associations so the finance and accountancy modules are tailored to their specific needs."

So which should you choose? One MBA student who doesn't want to be named because he is being sponsored by his local government employer, says, "I think that you really have to think through whether you want to stay in the public sector forever. I just don't know so it seemed sensible to follow a general MBA and hedge my bets although I have colleagues who are completely wedded to the public sector and so have chosen a specialist course."

For some public sector employers, studying for an MBA is, inevitably, a way of changing career. Matthew Terry, an MBA student at Manchester Business School has 10 years' experience working in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office but decided to quit his job, sell his home and try something completely different.

"I was on the fast track and had had postings to Poland and Dubai and had done some very interesting work on Afghanistan but I didn't see myself as a civil servant for ever," he says.

Mr Terry is still considering his future career options and says, "One of the reasons I'm doing an MBA is that it gives me the time and space to think about what I really want to do next. The whole area of corporate social responsibility is very interesting but I'm still not really sure what I will do next."

However, for other public sector employees, the whole MBA experience reinforces their choice of career. Rachel Jenkinson, who did an MBA at Cranfield School of Management and now heads the DTI's World Trade Organisation Unit, says, "I met a whole new network of private sector contacts from a wide range of backgrounds. I went back to my department knowing that public sector policy work was very much what I wanted to do, but armed with a greater sense of my own worth."