The memory of a respected academic being introduced as "the pretty lady" in a speech by a captain of industry still makes Dan Stork Banks grimace. After six years in the police force he was well practised in equal opportunities and the remark came as a shock, even though it was clearly intended as a compliment.
It was one of many cultural surprises for the constable when he visited companies in China as part of his executive MBA at Henley Business School, a programme that he says is giving him a wider view of how things are achieved in organisations here and abroad. He is one of a growing number of people from the emergency services enrolling on management courses as the public sector seeks to meet the pressure of competition, regulation, external inspection and efficiency savings.
Only a few years ago almost no one from the police, fire or ambulance services went on MBA courses, but this year there are three students from the fire service and several from the police, according to Chris Dalton, a programme director at Henley. "Most of the people we see from the emergency services have been working in the organisation for some time and intend to stay there. They are much less likely than other students to be using the qualification to prepare for a career change," he says.
PC Stork Banks, 31, now on secondment to Hampshire Police Authority, is already using his new MBA skills to embed the "prevent" strand of the Government's counter-terrorism strategy, and says people in the emergency services can fall into a blinkered way of thinking. "I had the chance to look at the way things are done in other organisations, not just in this country but abroad on an international study trip," he says. "We had the opportunity to go into the boardroom and sit around a table with the people who are running huge Chinese businesses. You wouldn't get that experience out of a book."
Colleges are keen to tap into the new market for students and the Cranfield School of Management awarded a scholarship worth £13,000 to "a rising star working in the criminal justice system". The 2007 winner, Kit Carpenter, an IT contractor with the Metropolitan Police Service, got his MBA this year. Educated mostly in South Africa at a time when higher education was not subsidised, she missed out on university and felt her lack of degree could be an impediment later in her career.
"In an environment where the day-to-day staff work is under exponential change, there is increasing acceptance that traditional public sector practice is not always fit for purpose," she says. "It's time to learn from the very best of other sectors."
External criticism of the public sector is that it often fails to take difficult decisions, she explains. The Cranfield MBA has given her new tools to deliver better results. It has also given her the confidence to walk away when she isn't able to make a difference. "My aim was to do a degree that would help me to realise my potential," she says. "It will do that in spades!"
Despite greater regulation and stringent new requirements of audit and inspection, the fire and rescue services have not moved towards employing professional managers from outside, preferring to grow their own. Gary Dobson, for example, has risen sharply up the ranks of the London Fire Brigade, the UK's largest fire and rescue service. "I am convinced that without the MBA I would not be doing the job I am now," says Dobson, 47, one of four directors in the tier just below the commissioner. When he left school after A-levels, he intended to earn some money in a gap year before going to university, but instead joined the fire brigade and never left. "I really love this job but I always regretted that I didn't go to university, so the MBA I took at the University of Portsmouth was for personal fulfilment as well as career progression," he says.
"There are a lot more duties and responsibilities on the fire service nowadays. It's a much more complex landscape and the governance requirements are more exacting. Once you get to my level, you need a really good understanding of disciplines such as financial management, budget setting and performance management."
He relished the chance to work with senior managers from the private and public sectors and international business students, and to share best practice. "As well as bringing ideas back, I was able to offer up many examples of innovative working in the London Fire Brigade," he says.
Other emergency personnel adding an MBA to their CVs include Michelle Buttery, the solicitor for West Mercia police, who is studying at Worcester Business School at the University of Worcester. She says the course has strengthened and simplified her management and leadership skills as well as giving her an excellent grounding in people management and exercising strategic perspective.
And there is Janice Keegan, a support services manger for Northumbria Police, who earned her MBA from the Newcastle Business School at Northumbria University and who says the days have long gone when resource management was handled by "the girls in admin". When she first joined the force in 1994, it was nowhere near as professional as now, she says. "Now we have people with accountancy, personnel and management qualifications. We have to operate in a business-like environment, because we are responsible for an awful lot of public money."
But it isn't only one-way traffic. Those people who work for organisations where their colleagues face risk on a daily basis and put their lives on the line to save others know a lot about morale, teamwork and camaraderie. That's another reason why business schools are keen to recruit them.