The MBA, once the only business qualification in town, now vies with a wide range of Masters courses for top talent. By Steve McCormack

That's because they were selected from an applicant pool of over 1,000. The fact that this number of people were willing to part with £16,000 for a place on a course that didn't exist three years ago is just one of many signs, across the management education landscape, of the growth in popularity of the business Masters course, embarked upon straight after a first degree, and leading to a relatively humble MSc or MA, rather than its swankier elder cousin, the MBA.

There are two, linked, explanations for this. First, industry is demanding management skills from a wider spread of its employees, as modern businesses become jigsaws of inter-dependent projects, all of which need managing, rather than one large enterprise, needing fewer people in senior positions.

Second, as the number of first degree graduates increases, getting a job with prospects can be much easier with a Masters qualification, particularly if it has commercial relevance.

"All Masters courses are growing in popularity," says Professor Mario Levis, head of the specialist Masters programme at Cass, "while the numbers signing up for MBAs are declining."

Cass has one of the largest ranges of business-related Masters in the world, and the most popular of these is the MSc in management, which provides a first step into the world of industry and commerce. It gives students a full background on the generic technicalities of business, and, as such, can be a conduit to employment in any sector.

Students with this qualification end up in a highly diverse mix of industries. But what they have in common is employability, which brings us back to how Cass selects 150 from the 1,000 applicants.

"We are looking for people we can place," explain Levis, "as well as a good degree from a good university." He also ensures a broad mix of nationalities in every cohort. Only 30 of the current starters are British, although another 50 or so came from abroad to do their first degree at a British university.

Dominating the other 23 specialist Masters courses at Cass are highly specialist programmes leading to a specific career path in the financial world. Large numbers end up working for neighbouring City institutions, having completed Masters with such finely honed titles as the MSc in mathematical trading and finance. Some are exclusively for the highly numerate, and others reflect increasing demand for specialists in topical sectors, for example the MSc in pensions science.

The picture is very much the same at most business schools. At Lancaster University Management School, for example, numbers of students starting Masters courses this month are the highest ever. Around 80 are starting the MSc management - double the size of a few years back.

"Our numbers have increased dramatically over the last few years," says Professor Steve Bradley, associate dean for postgraduate teaching.

Like elsewhere, Lancaster's recruits come from the home market and overseas, with China and India continuing to provide large numbers. Yet, despite the health of the market, Bradley is aware of the increasing competitiveness, as potential students seek the best, and most cost-effective, way of achieving a qualification that will give them clout in the job market.

"More and more institutions around the world are offering courses taught in English, and more UK institutions are doing things differently, such as offering courses by distance learning."

With this in mind, Lancaster is trying to spot niche gaps in the market, and devise courses to meet that need. An example here is the MSc in money, banking and finance. In the future, explains Bradley, a Masters linking law and management may also be on the cards.

The ever-rising profile of the business Masters is also reflected in the increased importance accorded to it by organisations until now better known for their monitoring of the MBA market.

The Association of MBAs (AMBA), for example, has just launched a new accreditation category, for pre-experience Masters in general management (PEMM). In the first tranche, 13 courses have received recognition, all at institutions already holding AMBA accreditation for their MBA programmes.

Of the 13, five courses are at British schools, two in the Netherlands and six in France, a sign of the traditional strength in France of the sector providing postgraduate business education immediately on completion of a first degree, principally at the network of Grandes Ecoles, the top rank management schools set up by Napoleon.

The list should not, though, be interpreted as AMBA's top 13 pre-experience courses, since the accreditation process is ongoing and many more will be added to the list over the course of time.

"These 13 are merely those that applied first," explains Jeanette Purcell, AMBA's chief executive, who stresses that the criteria for inclusion are quality of teaching and an emphasis on the development of knowledge and theory, rather than the leadership skills that lie at the heart of MBA programmes.

The new category also serves AMBA's aim of retaining the distinctiveness of the MBA, and tries to keep the MBA brand isolated in the public perception as the blue riband qualification.

This is a point endorsed by Professor Jonathan Michie, director of Birmingham Business School, whose MSc in international business is among the AMBA's first wave of accredited Masters programmes.

"The Association of MBAs is to be congratulated on the decision to accredit such degrees," he says, "as MSc programmes have become natural complements to our range of MBA programmes, and are in no way substitutes."

The Financial Times has recently contributed to the newly raised profile of business Masters by bringing out its first ever ranking of European Masters in Management.

The first 25 in the list feature strong contingents from both the UK and France, with HEC in Paris singled out by the FT as the best, taking into account a wide range of criteria, including salaries of alumni three years after graduation, and breadth of experience among the teaching staff.

So, the reputations of university business faculties and freestanding management schools are becoming just as dependent on their mix of taught Masters as they are on their MBAs. But, just as with the MBA, a key measure of quality for a Masters is going to be where it sends the graduate after the final project has been completed.

Case studies

Akin Majekodunmi, 23: 'I reckoned the qualification would give me a better chance in the job market'

Akin Majekodunmi completed an MSc Internal Auditing and Management, with a distinction, from Cass Business School, in summer 2004. He'd graduated with a 2.2 in Economics from Leeds University a year earlier. He now works as a product accountant, for credit derivatives for HSBC in London.

After Leeds, I wanted to further my education and not stop with just a Bachelors, because I reckoned a Masters would give me a better chance in the employment market.

There were about 100 on the course, and I was surprised that I was one of only a handful from UK universities. But it was a really positive aspect, working alongside people from so many parts of the world.

The most pressurised part was completing coursework, particularly group projects, as we'd have to work out who was doing which parts, arrange meetings and meet deadlines.

Overall, the course gave me a good understanding of management in general, and the relationship between management and employees, which looks basic, but can get complex.

Afterwards, getting a job was extremely hard, but that was mainly because of my 2.2 at Leeds, I think. But now I'm exactly where I want to be and it's great that the Masters has given me a foot in the door of this industry.

Sarah Wright, 23: 'The teamwork was fun, particularly working with people from other countries'

Sarah Wright recently finished an MSc in Management at Lancaster University Management School, having graduated with a 2.1 in politics and international relations from the same university last year. She's just started working for the recruitment consultancy, AndersElite in their Manchester office. She'll be handling the recruitment of building surveyors.

My first degree didn't offer many options, other than the civil service, and I didn't want to do that. I wanted to get a general grounding in how business works.

Every single module I did was really great, but it was hard work. All my friends who'd stayed on to do Masters in other subjects were doing about six hours a week, and no homework, but we were on the go all the time.

The teamwork element was great fun, particularly working with people from other countries. The hardest part was writing a business plan, with real figures. Mine was on a Chinese restaurant and it was real pressure to get it finished. We were all in at seven in the morning on Sundays.

Although the job I'm doing now isn't yet using anything I did on the course, the Masters gave me the confidence to go to the interview and say, "I can do this job. I can be a manager."

Charlotte Annandale, 25: 'In France, you can't get a job in marketing without a Masters in management'

Charlotte Annandale finished the Masters in management at Audencia School of Management in Nantes, in October last year, having already studied three years' political science in Strasbourg. She now works as a marketing executive for Citroën, at their UK headquarters in Slough.

Political science is a good background, but I wanted to work in marketing, and in France, you can't get a job in marketing without a Masters in management.

For the first six months of my two years at Audencia, I did a catch-up programme on all the aspects of business. That was hard work and all the subjects with maths were quite difficult.

From then on, I specialised in marketing. I spent six months on an exchange programme at Nottingham University, where I studied marketing, then a six-month internship with Buena Vista Games (a Disney company) near Paris. The rest of the time I was in Nantes.

I was hired by Citroën's HR department in France. In France, it's well-known that HR departments won't look at you unless you have a Masters from a well-ranked institution.

I love the job because it involves lots of contact with people inside and outside the company. I didn't know much about cars before, but now I've found quite a passion and I like the creative side of advertising.