A new MBA course focuses on management in the public sector. Steve McCormack reports

In the Eighties, one of the cruder reasons young graduates gave for signing up to an MBA course was because it represented a "licence to print money". Few would be insensitive enough to offer that motive now. But many students on a relatively new breed of MBA-style course would feel no embarrassment at arguing that their study enabled them to be more effective exercising their licence to spend money.

These are the participants on the courses centred on management in the public sector. They are increasingly referred to as MPAs, or Masters in Public Administration, although some retain the initials MBA in the programme title, the detail of which stresses the public sector focus. They're growing in prestige and attracting senior figures from public bodies, including central and local government, the police and health services, and the voluntary sector. The premier accrediting body for MBA schools and courses, the Association of MBAs, is including MPA programmes in its inspection and validation regime, although a separate quality mark is likely to emerge in time.

The growth of MPAs follows a trend in the USA, where there are now more than 100 such programmes. Here, until recently, there were only a handful of universities offering MPAs, including Liverpool, LSE, Ulster, and Robert Gordon in Aberdeen. But the numbers are taking off. A recent meeting, called to try to set up a network of interested universities, attracted representatives from 27 institutions. Twelve of these are launching new MPA programmes in September, and the rest are in the final throes of putting together the curriculum for a start within a year or two.

The convenor of that meeting was Professor Colin Talbot from Nottingham University's School of Sociology and Social Policy, whose MPA starts this autumn. "The growth of MPAs is a result of the increasing demand in the public sector for policy analysis and evaluation skills," he says. "Until now there hasn't been a common qualification in this area." The Nottingham course, which will start with around 20 students, will concentrate on learning by making international comparisons of public policy making and management.

Jane Rowley, from Graduate Prospects, the careers arm of Universities UK, which has probably the most accurate overview of the postgraduate market, sees the MPA as a qualification that will put down strong roots. "Part of the attraction of MPA-style programmes is that they are distinct from MBAs. MPAs are still relatively rare, and their popularity reflects an increasing interest among graduates in building a career in public service," she says.

Among the trailblazers for this style of course was Birmingham University, which started its Public Service MBA in 1990. At the helm since its inception is Professor John Raine, who sees the essence of this type of Masters course in its concentration on outcomes rather than output - the focus of most conventional MBAs.

"We've passed the phase in public service where the concentration was just on service delivery," he says. "Public management today operates at a different level. For example, a police force is not just concerned about numbers of police officers on patrol, but also about public reassurance and building confidence in the community."

Birmingham has about 80 students a year on its course, split into full-timers, mainly from overseas, and part-timers, mainly UK-based. The part-time course is spread over two years and students come from diverse backgrounds, with large concentrations from police forces, health and housing departments and the civil service.

One recent graduate is Nadhia Hussain, an area manager with the Yorkshire Metropolitan Housing Association. Her place was 50 per cent funded by a bursary from the Housing Corporation, keen to enhance the qualifications, particularly of ethnic minority women, in the housing sector. Hussain is in no doubt that she has benefited from the course. "I feel more confident in decision-making, and better equipped to move on to the next level of management."

One current Birmingham student is Jan Stoll, an assistant director at the West Midlands office of NCH, the national children's charity. She's enjoyed the range of topics covered and the chance to build relationships and exchange views with senior figures from other public service. "I have really enjoyed the return to study," says Stoll. "It's given me the chance to research and reflect in more detail than I would normally have time for. I can analyse what I am doing in my job, away from the day-to-day pressures of actually doing it."

Another of the leading programmes is the MPA at Warwick University's Business School, which has been running for four years. It is a part-time course spread over three years, during which time 13 weeks are spent on campus. Entry requirements are a 2.1 first degree and at least four years' work in the public sector.

Past and present students include large numbers from Whitehall departments and local government, numerous health service officers, including two NHS Trust chief executives, sundry representatives from the police, fire, and prisons services, and several students from abroad.

The academic director, Professor John Benington, has identified a fundamental difference in approach among his students compared to "normal" MBA recruits. "While most MBA students are primarily moved by career progression, MPAs really come to try to make sense of the world and improve their skills. Any lift they get in career terms is a by-product."

The breadth of the course is illustrated by the diversity of lecturers, with leading outside speakers enhancing Warwick-based staff from within the business school and from the economics, law, politics and philosophy departments.

And there's a strong international dimension. Among the optional modules are study trips of one or two weeks to Brussels, Washington and Harvard, and Johannesburg and Cape Town. "A constant theme on the course is that we think intellectually and practically," says Benington. "At least a third of the time is spent on practical problem solving in real public service situations."

And, in common with most programmes where senior executives rub shoulders outside their different workplaces, Warwick's MPA cultivates masses of shared learning through exchange of experience.

Daniel Goodwin, a senior officer for Wealden District Council in East Sussex, who's about to graduate with distinction from the Warwick course, provides testament to that quality. "My colleagues on the course were some of the brightest and most engaging people I have met," he says. "It would have been impossible not to learn masses from them."

Irwin Turbitt, formerly a senior police officer in Northern Ireland, valued the way the course was academically stretching, and how it constantly linked theory and practice. Specifically, he applied the theory of adaptive leadership to his role as operational police commander for the notoriously volatile Drumcree march in Portadown, with dramatic success.

"Over two years, working with all parties, and commanding 3,000 police and soldiers, we reached a situation where there was no trouble at all," he says. "It had been at least 20 years since this was the case." And it would be difficult for any MPA course to find a more striking real-life endorsement of the implementation of academic theory than that.