More options are vital if business schools are to remain viable

Some MBAs are dividing opinion, as purists deride their worth while progressives value their clear focus

Tough. Competitive. Volatile. Such words are being used by senior academics to describe the MBA market. With visa restrictions, financial constraints and evidence that post-MBA salary uplifts are no longer as compelling as they were before the crash, it's no surprise that some schools are reporting more than 50 per cent slumps in recent student enrolments.

Leading business schools are proving more resilient. According to the FT's Global MBA rankings, the UK's top five business schools – London, Oxford, Cambridge, Manchester and Warwick – have seen enrolments ease six per centover the past two years, while the other 13 programmes in the UK that make the rankings have reported an average decrease of 35%. It would seem that in hard times, an MBA is still seen as an astute investment.

Even so, all business schools are grappling with how to ensure their flagship MBA programmes remain viable. The past decade has seen a rise in the specialist MBA, which may sound like an oxymoron but now accounts, according to leading accreditation service AMBA, for about 10 per cent of the more than 700 accredited programmes on its books at over 200 schools around the world. Anecdotally, that proportion is on the rise as more squeezed business schools look to introduce specialist programmes as a way of filling classrooms.

There are two types of specialist MBA. There are those emphasising a certain discipline, such as finance or human resources, and those focusing on a particular industry, such as the creative, aviation or energy sectors. The University of Leicester School of Management, for example, has just launched an MBA in biotechnology, in association with the Netherlands Biotech Industry Association (Niaba). Angus Cameron, deputy head of the school, says: "It's a way of developing other funding streams." He also points out that the history of the MBA has always been one of debate and development to keep it relevant in a changing business world.

This biotech toe-in-the-water may be the first in an array of specialist offerings from the business school. "All schools have taken a hit in the past two years and it's very hard to gauge the long-term direction," says Cameron. "Diversification allows us to maintain the whole thing as a viable enterprise."

The trade association link helps lower the risk of a new venture, with the trade body acting as gatekeeper and recruiter to the programme. It's a model reflected at Sheffield Business School, which has been running a specialist MBA in facilities management for more than a decade and has now welcomed its first cohort onto a closed MBA via the Facilities Management Association (FMA), which represents a fast-growing sector worth £120 billion. "Unless you are a Harvard, it's a competitive market out there," says Melanie Bull, course leader for the facilities management MBA. "It's tough times for the market but our specialist MBA has not been impacted, holding up at 50 students, along with 18 on the new closed MBA."

This looks like a win-win for the business school and trade association, which seeks to offer an attractive package to member companies. But an MBA has always been about more than upgrading the skills and improving the strengths of function heads. It's about creating the next generation of leaders who transcend sector boundaries and have the breadth and depth to innovate and transform. The MBA is as much a personal journey as it is a CV-polishing exercise.

A specialist MBA also negates one of the key benefits of business school: the diversity of a typical classroom, which allows students to learn from other sectors, cultures and approaches to business. This cross-fertilisation is one of the most valuable aspects of an MBA. As one London Business School student puts it, a typical cohort might bring together a French bio-tech entrepreneur; a Turkish aviation specialist; an American strategy consultant; a Brazilian banker and an Indian consumer goods marketing specialist. This kind of melting pot gives students a new perspective that just isn't possible when everyone in the classroom has been filtered through the same industry.

And for employers, these new qualifications can be hard to read. A specialist MBA may show commitment to a particular industry, but at this level employers need more than commitment. "Employers know and understand an MBA, but find it much harder to grasp what a specialist MBA is," says Graham Clark, director of the full-time MBA at Cranfield School of Management. "At this level they are looking for people who can work effectively across the organisation rather than in one silo."

It's fair to say that many in the business education business view the specialist MBA with a certain scepticism. One MBA insider, speaking off the record, said the "fad" of specialism is resurgent because it's a way for business schools to charge MBA fees for what is effectively Masters content. This is an interesting view, because while the MBA market has suffered severe contraction, specialist Masters are buoyant.

These specialist qualifications are also competing with the MBA: a March 2013 survey by Carrington Crisp, education marketeers, found a quarter of prospective MBA students would definitely consider a specialist Masters as an alternative to an MBA, with another 20 per cent saying it was a possibility. If you want to do a specialist qualification in say, finance, why do an MBA in finance for north of £21,000 when you could do an MSc in banking and finance for less than half the price?

Dr Steve Seymour, director of MBA programmes at Ashridge Business School, echoes this concern, saying it's the MBA brand that "attracts people even if the content is what a few years ago might be a specialist Masters". An MBA should be a general management qualification," insists Seymour.

Within that generalism, however, there's scope within the MBA curriculum for students to tailor their studies to suit their own particular interests or career goals. And a number of top business schools have been reinventing their MBA programmes in recent years – including the father of them all, Harvard Business School – to reflect changing priorities and the economic realities of running programmes that could be struggling for participants.

Ashridge, for example, has been rethinking its MBA, a significant proportion of which is now based on "live case studies", where students act as management consultants, dealing with real problems in real companies. On a recent field trip to China, for example, students had to assist an exporter that wanted to get a toehold in the domestic market and advise another state-owned organisation on becoming more entrepreneurial. "They have to sell their recommendations to their project host," says Seymour. "It's a great way to build relationships with future employers."

It seems to be an attractive selling point, with full-time enrolment up 10 per cent (although part-timers are down 10 per cent as companies reign in sponsorship). Even so, Ashridge certainly isn't immune to the financial pressures and has blended its full-time and part-time classes. "It means the classes are much more diverse, so the students benefit while we get the economies of scale benefit," explains Seymour.

The most recent statistics from Gmac suggests MBA enrolments in the US are in recovery, with most of the application gains coming from international students, many of whom might otherwise have come to British schools. As visa restrictions and a weak post-graduation economic outlook continue to depress numbers, business schools are going to need to think hard about how to keep their MBA programmes viable. Specialism may look like the solution, but as specialist Masters programmes cannibalise market share it could be that the real differentiator will be what made the MBA such a badge of quality in the first place: a general qualification for tomorrow's business leaders.

The school: 'We're not an MBA factory'

Cranfield School of Management, a top 40 business school in the FT Global Rankings, remains committed to the ethos of the MBA as a general qualification, but the decline in student numbers has prompted some soul-searching and a new approach.

"We have always, possibly arrogantly, been overtly a general management MBA," explains Graham Clark, director of the full-time MBA at Cranfield School of Management. He admits this was perhaps "snobby" with the school expecting prospective students to understand its strengths. "But we did some research and found that many people didn't understand the differences between MBAs," says Clark. "That made us step back and think about what we do really well and why people come to us."

Keen to differentiate itself, the school has decided to stress what it does best: personal development and leadership. "We're now going to emphasise 'personal development plus', which is going as far as we can without saying we specialise in it," says Clark, who says alumni are "overjoyed" by the change.

Cranfield currently has 60 MBAs compared to 150 pre-crash. "We would like to be nearer to 90 but we are positioning ourselves for quality, so we're providing more content, more personal attention," says Clark. "We're not an MBA factory."

By contrast, and illuminating the current dynamics in the business education sector, Cranfield's specialist Masters programmes are booming: its MSc in finance and management, for example, which now stands at eighth on the FT's Global Rankings, is at capacity while its highly regarded MSc course in logistics and supply chain is "doing very well".

Case study: 'I secured an internship at Google'

Media executive Alun Lucas, 37, decided against a specialist MBA as he wanted a broad range of skills to work across a multitude of industry sectors. He chose a full-time MBA at Manchester Business School.

"I wanted to gain a broader business and strategy skillset as sectors are increasingly consolidating. I decided to take a bold step out of the workplace by applying for a place at Manchester Business School.

The content is invaluable, yet the most surprising benefit has been removal from the bubble of working. My previous industry was very client driven, and there's a risk of taking an 'eyes down' approach and just trying to get everything crossed off the to-do list. Now I'm studying, I have the opportunity to see the big wide world and work with people from multiple sectors. It has been immeasurably helpful in deciding my future career path.

I've been able to secure an internship at Google due to the high profile of Manchester Business School, and taking part in competitions has afforded me some serious CV points. I led the school's team in the sustainable venture capital investment competition. To be able to compete on a global stage like that demonstrates the MBA learning curve."

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