On track: Why some professionals prefer industry-specific courses

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The Independent Online

The MBA market is becoming increasingly crowded. In 2007 the Association of MBAs (AMBA) gave their seal of approval to a further six UK business schools in recognition of their high standards, with many other equally ambitious institutions opening their doors for the first time in the same year.

In such a competitive arena, it is natural that the more well-established business schools have started to look for ways to stand out from the crowd. A solution for many of them has been to set up their own niche MBAs: programmes which are aimed at giving entrants not just the usual management nous, but also industry-specific skills that will almost certainly secure them a top job in their desired sector.

A recent example is the Manchester Global MBA for sport and major events, launched in November by Manchester Business School (MBS) Worldwide in partnership with the World Academy of Sport, an education service provider to many sports federations. The programme is aimed specifically at sports executives, and uses case studies such as past Olympic Games to encourage entrants to think on a larger scale.

"It's unique because we're able to draw on real-life situations and use real organisations, so people can do it in a really practical way," says Chris Solly, the director of the World Academy of Sport. "Sport is different from most other industries: the deadlines can't be stretched or passed without meeting your targets, because you can't delay an opening ceremony. And when you give an event, the governing bodies put great trust in the organisers."

The programme is designed to be as flexible as possible, taking anywhere from two and a half to five years to complete. Some entrants will already be high-flyers in the sports industry; others may simply need background knowledge to support a new career. At £19,200 the MBA isn't cheap but, as it's aimed at busy executives with six or more years of experience, some participants will be sponsored by their companies. And according to Nigel Banister, the CEO of MBS Worldwide, this works out well for both parties.

"Companies are usually very pleased to work such niche MBA programmes into their overall plans for their organisation," he says. "It's a retention strategy, as it allows their employees to build up specific skills so the company can develop the next generation of leaders from inside."

The new sports option is not the only niche course available at Manchester: the school's MBA for construction executives has been running since 2005, and is particularly popular in Dubai, a city with one of the most rapidly-changing skylines in the world.

Dubai is also the home of Cass Business School's new Dubai executive MBA, another subject-specific offering with specialisations in Islamic finance and energy. The £25,000 course – which started in September with an intake of 35 students – lasts two years, and is taught over a series of monthly four-day weekends.

The financial strand covers all aspects of banking in Islamic countries, while the energy option prepares students for the thorny world of oil and energy trading. Most of the entrants are based locally, but some jet in from all over the world: one even braves a 6,847-mile commute from New York.

"We knew there was a massive demand for training in Islamic finance," says Tim Navin-Jones, the course's marketing manager. "We figured that starting an MBA in Dubai would give us a competitive advantage. It has been extremely popular. Although we want to keep the class sizes small, it will have to expand next year."

Niche MBAs are sometimes frowned upon by those who see the qualification primarily as a generalist degree. Others see them as simply trendy. But one that has stood the test of time is the MBA in football industries organised by Liverpool University Management School. Set up 10 years ago, it has been so successful that it now has its own dedicated department, the Football Industry Group.

The usual array of general management modules are taught in the first few weeks, followed by several football-specific ones taught by experts in the field. The final part of the course sees participants sent on work placements, often with a Premier League club or a football federation such as FIFA or UEFA.

"Ten years ago, there was still the impression that there was no outside route into the football industry," says Dr Rogan Taylor, the director of the Football Industry Group and the original architect of this MBA.

"I designed it specifically for these people. There were a few other sporting MBAs dotted about, but the key was to focus it on football to make it stand out. My approach was to get people from the industry to design and teach it, so when the course ends, they know who everyone is and often take them on."

'The football modules give you an insight into the business'

David Cook, 27, recently graduated with an MBA in Football Industries from Liverpool University Management School. He now works as an international development manager for Everton FC, travelling to the US, Canada, and South Africa.

"I used to work in financial services, and I wanted to have an MBA on my CV because it certainly doesn't do you any harm in terms of your career. It gave me the opportunity to learn the basics and improve my managerial skills, but the greatest benefit was mixing those with the football modules, which prepare you so much better and give you an insight into the business.

"Traditionally, the football industry is extremely difficult to get into: there's a perception that it's who you know, not what you know. I had to maximise my chances of getting in, and the course offered so many networking opportunities with people from UEFA, FIFA and football federations and clubs.

"Football clubs are streamlined businesses, they don't carry passengers: you have to step up to the plate and perform as soon as you arrive, so I was glad I'd done a football-orientated MBA. And of course, I love football – everyone involved with the industry does."

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